January 03, 2010

Indoctrinating students about missions

4th Grade California Mission Projects:  A Thought Experiment for Parents, Educators, and Students

By Deborah MirandaThe Mission Unit is a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology against which fourth graders have little if any resistance, and intense pressure is put upon students (and their parents) to create a "Mission Project" that glorifies the era and glosses over both Spanish and Mexican exploitation of Indians, as well as American enslavement of those same Indians during American rule. For a 4th grade mother's take on the pressures and competitive aspects of the project, see Jennifer White's column "Fourth Grade Mission" at http://www.havingthreekids.com/onamission.html, where White writes, "Part of what’s making me so grumpy is that I don’t see any point to this project, any more than I saw the point of the shrunken-apple-head witch project, or the Halloween diorama project. Even if the missions are still relevant enough to justify this effort by all of the California fourth-graders and their families (and frankly, I’m not sure that they are), I just don’t see how building a model helps the kids understand the missions any better. I've thought about asking Riley's teacher, but I can't bring myself to question her on this sacred topic. It would be vaguely heretical. None of the other moms I talk to are sure what the point of the project is, either, but we’re all resigned to the idea that the mission model is like death and taxes--annoying, but unavoidable."

In other words, the Mission Unit is all too often a lesson in mindless competition, imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny than actually educational or a jumping off point for critical thinking or accurate history.

Can you imagine teaching about slavery in the U.S. South while simultaneously requiring each child to lovingly construct a plantation model, complete with happy darkies in the fields, white masters, overseers with whips, and human auctions? Or ask fourth graders to study the Holocaust by carefully designing detailed concentration camps, complete with gas chambers, heroic Nazi guards, crematoriums?
What's missing from the typical unit on missions:The first thing you might notice is an almost complete lack of focus on the ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS whose lived and died in these Missions: California Indians. Over 500 different tribes existed in the lands now forming the State of California at first contact: about one million people. By the time the Missions closed, the Rancho (Mexican) era was over, and the Gold Rush (Americans) led to statehood, only 5-10,000 Indians remained alive. What happened to them? How did the Missions contribute to that devastation? What kind of “lives” did those Indians lead in the Missions that created a life-expectancy of about seven years old?

Secondly, you might notice a complete lack of reference to two crucial Mission actors: Priests, and Soldiers. On whose authority were these Missions ordered constructed? And hey–who constructed them, anyway? And why would Indians give up their freedom to become, essentially, slaves?

Who decided this was a good idea? How, exactly, was it carried out? In other words: let’s talk about VIOLENCE and RACISM.
Comment:  I believe I received a mission lesson in 5th grade, and made a mission model. If I learned anything from the lesson, I don't recall it.

For more on the subject, see Serra Almost a Saint and Fun Facts About Missions.

Below:  An alternative to the California flag that acknowledges the role of Indians.

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