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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 and over the course of history. Through the cultural immersion described below, in Enki each child experiences many expressions of human wisdom and compassion. While we are well aware that this raises issues of cultural appropriation and exploitation, we believe that cultural education focused on fostering a sense of identification with all peoples, is a necessity. 

Exactly how the Enki outlook currently manifests, or how it might manifest down the road is open for discussion; we are eager to talk with those concerned so that we can offer this experience in the most culturally honoring manner possible – to the end, as much as possible, we work with cultural authenticators from each tradition that is brought to the children in order to ensure accuracy and respect. HOWEVER, 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, rather than affirming their place as the birthright that unites us all.  So the importance of this inclusive and immersive approach lies at the heart of Enki, and 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 without borders – our universal birthright. Although growing up in the U.N. community 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. A few, such as Waldorf, focus somewhat more deeply, but do so with a hierarchical outlook, i.e. a belief that older non-western cultures are stepping stones to the all-important, modern west.  

Enki does not take up either of these approaches because we believe these subtly feed the very “us and them” outlook the others are trying to avoid. In Enki Education, until the children are in High School, we don’t actually “study” cultures; we experience them. And we do so with a focus on the universal human journey without a hierarchical judgment.

Therefore in Enki, 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 – 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. 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 in focus. 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, West 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; our focus is on connection, not collection! 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. For example, when studying the ancient Middle East, in the context of life in ancient Sumer, students focus on mechanics by exploring irrigation systems and the simple machines developed there. When studying the European Renaissance, they learn about the shift from calculating with Roman numerals to use of the Arabic place value system and from that launch into Fibonacci and the study of ratio and proportion. And so on. All of these studies come out of and are intertwined with the lives of the people in focus at the time.

 

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 their own challenges, gifts, and accomplishments reflected in many cultures each year and it 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, the challenges, and the successes 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 happens with a heart-connection to the people they are studying and no one is a “them” who can be enslaved, oppressed, or conquered lightly. Again and again, we see the children in Enki meet people of different backgrounds and experience different cultural opportunities with an open hearted interest.

Rebecca, 18 years, began with Enki homeschooling in preschool:

I started taking junior college classes concurrently with finishing high school so I was 15 when I first noticed this, and it has only grown more clear. What did I notice? I should start with the fact that I always loved the Enki stories and really felt like I knew the people – but if you asked me about anyone in particular or even any culture, I didn’t remember much beyond feelings of having had fun. So I was quite interested to see what the more factual approach of college learning might add. 

Honestly, I was surprised. What surprised me was how different my response to the study of cultures I had experienced at Enki was from those I hadn’t. I laugh thinking of it. I noticed quickly that as soon as we focused on those I had experienced with Enki, I felt warm and at home and I cared. The facts were easy; finding that kind of heart for those that seemed completely new was not so easy! Over time, I found my way in by recognizing bigger cultural patterns, but the difference was marked. 

We have seen amazing things happen with this work, but, we are also open to and interested in talking with anyone who feels they see a different and more respectful way to nurture this cross-cultural connection and identification in the children.  Those of us working with Enki – parents and teachers alike – have been repeatedly amazed by the depth and power of the connection that happens when learning this way, and by the profound sense of the “everyman” that the children carry away.