Multicultural Education in the Enki Approach

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-by Beth Sutton, Developer and Director, Enki Education, Inc.

Enki Education has several unique aspects; among them is our approach to multicultural education.  Multicultural education means so many different things to different people that I thought it might help to describe our unusual outlook and approach right from the start.

Probably the most important aspect of our outlook is the belief that all people of all cultures, religions, races, and times have and always have had an indestructible core of vitality that naturally unfolds as wisdom and compassion. We see this core as our human birthright – the nature of who we are. Certainly, access to this core gets blocked or obscured often and repeatedly, but, much as cloud cover does not alter the sun itself, this core, we believe, remains unchanged. We see the job of education as one of increasing access to this human birthright, and setting the child’s inner compass to return to this again and again to his inner vitality when the cloud cover gets thick.

To bring this into the children’s direct experience, regardless of what culture they are from, it is critical that they experience this core wisdom in its different manifestations from around the world. Through the cultural immersion described here, each child experiences many expressions of human wisdom. While we are well aware of issues of cultural appropriation and exploitation, we believe that cultural education is a necessity. We believe that if we don’t offer this open-handed experience, we implicitly teach the children that wisdom, vitality, and compassion are “things” that one group owns and another doesn’t, and not the birthright that unites us all. We do, as much as possible, work with cultural authenticators from each tradition to ensure accuracy and respect. However, including a broad range of cultural experiences is not a matter of choice for us; it is central to the Enki mission – there is no Enki Education without it.    

I, myself, grew up in the United Nations Community and attended the United Nations School throughout my childhood. While the UN is far from perfect and there has been much imbalance in the honoring of cultures – among the most neglected, the American Indian and African American – the UN has held and worked towards a vision of full equality for all cultures and peoples. The UN School was and is committed to this vision, and through this, gave me an experience of multicultural life that was neither hierarchical, nor based on an “us and them” outlook. It was an experience of the human heart and human decency – the birthright – without borders. Although that was a unique experience and not a replicable one, it did become my compass for developing an approach to education that would bring all peoples into the children’s experience, in a humanity-based model. It is the core reason Enki Education was developed at all.

How did this lead to a unique model of education that is really different from that found in most schools? Basically, it made clear to me a central flaw in the standard way of approaching “cultural studies.” Most programs study “other cultures,” trying to look at and appreciate “them” and “their differences” – a bit like visiting a cultural Disneyland.  We believe this subtly feeds the very “us and them” outlook they are trying to avoid. In Enki Education, until the children are in High School, we don’t actually “study” cultures; we experience them.

Throughout the grades, children are immersed in a given culture for a period of two to four months at a stretch.  The children work with the language, the songs, dances, games, crafts, and stories of a given culture and its people on a daily basis, throughout this period. This does not happen in a “scatter and grab” manner, but it is brought to them through a coherent story of and, when possible,  from the culture. All the arts and academics flow from that, forming a coherent experience.

They may hear of the “zangala” (women’s quarters) and the boo-boo (grandfather’s robe) of Malidoma Some of Burkino Faso, W. Africa, the “aloo matter” or “Bapu” of Gandhi’s India, or learn the entire 12 verses of the Thanksgiving Address in Mohawk with the Iroquois stories of the Peacemaker and Aionwahta. All the while they are singing and dancing from the culture, and making foods and crafts. The sounds and movement and textures of the culture become part of the children’s daily experience, and, in turn, it is the richness of their world that they are exploring, not treasures of others they are collecting or analyzing. In turn, a non-hierarchical connection to the many expressions of humanity in our world becomes a part of who the children are.

During each Cultural Unit, all the other studies, from language arts, to math, to science, come out of this cultural mood and, whenever possible, directly out of the stories of the people. So, for two or three or fourth months, every single day, the children are singing the songs, doing the dances, making the crafts of the peoples in question – not as meeting “other,” but as experiencing life of which they are a part. It is the water they drink, the air they breathe – and songs, dance, and story stay in our bodies and hearts forever.

In this way, rather than standing back to study “them,” the children are always studying or experiencing the humanity of which they are a part: the human heart and the human journey in its many diverse and beautiful expressions. We believe that this is how a real connection is made – whether you have the privilege of making relationships with people of many cultures or not. This lets the children experience themselves reflected in many cultures each year and gives them a chance to make a connection to all major cultural groups by the time they finish eighth grade, when they begin on a more conceptual look at mankind. Although our approach to the specifics of education itself is very different from that of the United Nations School, this core experience of  belonging to a larger humanity is a shared one.

Over the years, the children experience the beauty of each culture in its own right, before they tackle the politics of invasion and oppression.  When they are old enough to really tackle those issues, it is done with a heart connection to the people they are studying and no one is a “them” who can be enslaved, oppressed, or conquered lightly. I have been repeatedly amazed by the depth and power of the connection that happens this way, and by the profound sense of the “everyman” that the children carry away.