Reflecting on Deculturization in Schools

By: Daniel Bergerson

Rather than providing an answer, this post raises a question about how, as new and future teachers, we can decolonize our classrooms. Let’s start with a working definition of deculturalization in schools.

I understand deculturalization as the devaluation of students’ experiences, erosion of their social and cultural capital, and dismissal of stories that run counter to the stock narrative. Deculturalization is a clunky term, but it goes by many other names. Related concepts include assimilation, which is a complex process that most immigrants negotiate, as well as cultural genocide—a more descriptive term for extreme cases like that of indigenous peoples. Education scholar Angela Valenzuela uses the term subtractive schooling to describe how the mostly white teaching staff at an American school divests Chicano students of their prior knowledge by refusing to embrace bilingualism and biculturalism. All of these terms—assimilation, cultural genocide, subtractive schooling—have different meanings, but they all relate to deculturalization.
To give an example of deculturalization, I’ll turn to my primary area of expertise: me. My mother was born and raised in Sweden, making me one of over 20 million U.S.-born adults who are considered a second-generation immigrant. As a toddler, I would speak Swedish with my mother and English with my father, who is from Minnesota, as well as visit my distant cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents in Sweden each year. I remember playing kubb, eating potatiskorv, and asking, “Vil du spela ett spel med mig?” to the other kids on the playground in Västerhaninge, my mother’s hometown. Unfortunately, my family stopped visiting Sweden and being actively bilingual once I started school. Needless to say, the school did not offer Swedish as a foreign language either.

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Now, to skip ahead fifteen years, I have forgotten how to speak the Swedish language, fallen out of contact with Swedish relatives, and lost all of my connections to Swedish culture other than frozen meatballs from IKEA. One summer I tried using Rosetta Stone to learn the language I once knew, but I stopped because it was sad and futile. (I wrote the Swedish sentence in the previous paragraph using Google Translate). In this way, I have experienced deculturalization as a student. However, my story does not represent the severity and racism with which deculturalization is carried out against other ethnic groups, and my Swedish heritage (i.e. whiteness) grants me a high degree of privilege not afforded to most students. Still, reflecting on my own story helps me understand how schools should do more to support students in achieving fluency in more than one language and culture.

As new and future teachers, we can also reflect on our practice by studying the history of deculturalization in schools. For example, from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, the United States government established off-reservation boarding schools with the explicit purpose of assimilating Native American children into Anglo-American society. These schools removed children from their families, prohibited expressions of Native culture, and provided direct instruction in becoming Christian rural farmers and laborers. In short, the schoolmasters sought to reconstruct the self of each Native child, signified by an Anglicized name imposed on each student.

The combination of identity-stripping public spectacles (e.g. cutting hair, burning clothes, confiscating belongings) and forced celebrations of American “history” (e.g. the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, even the Dawes Act) traumatized Native children and contributed to a legacy of abuse and suicide that still affects Native communities today. However, it is important to remember that student resistance—meeting in secret, disrupting class, performing slowdowns while working—prevented the colonial project of complete deculturalization from becoming a reality. The Indian boarding school experience was diverse and represents only one history of deculturalization through schooling. Unfortunately, there are too many other examples to summarize here (see further reading below).

So what does deculturalization look and feel like today? Sure, there are some little blonde Swedish-American boys who do not have access to formal Swedish language instruction, but there are many more Latin@ students who cannot study academic Spanish because some secondary schools consider it “too easy for them” and thus unfair to Anglo students. Meanwhile, the teaching workforce remains 82 percent white, even when racial and ethnic “minorities” make up the majority of public school students. This means that many students of color often learn history with the harmful biases of a white teacher, sometimes exacerbated by a whitewashed textbook. Earlier this year, I observed a social studies teacher casually instruct her students—some of whom self-identify as Native American—to ignore questions about the Indian New Deal on the upcoming unit test without giving an explanation as to why she omitted this important topic from the curriculum. These are just a few of the forms that deculturalization takes in schools at this moment, although there are more I could describe now and even more I have yet to recognize.

An important question remains: What can we do in our practice as teachers to limit this deculturalization and build upon what our students bring into class from their communities? Fortunately, my fellow new and future teachers have already shared relevant reflections in other posts on Young Teachers Collective…

  • Stephanie Rivera wrote that “to continue my lesson on the Middle Ages would be ignoring the fact that my students’ lives mattered” after the shooting of Walter Scott.
  • Jacob Chaffin reminded me that “from the classroom, to school, to entire town: community plays a crucial role in the grieving process.”
  • Catalina Adorno shared what “we can do to support undocumented students in our classrooms.”
  • Mel Katz and Molly Tansey described white teachers’ “responsibility to examine and think critically about race, justice, and our own privilege, and most importantly — how these play out in the classroom.”
  • Kailynn Barbour explained why she does “not stand up for anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools” as an out educator.

These are all thoughtful and instructive reflections, and they only represent one week’s worth of posts! I am very thankful to the people who are writing about their experiences and helping me understand cultural inclusivity, diversity responsiveness, and multicultural education.

Again, this post is not meant to answer the question of how to decolonize classrooms, but I will end with two more ideas for reflecting on my complicity in deculturalization as a teacher. First, I want to always question my assumptions about why students sometimes do not ‘care about’ school. Students’ refusal to ‘care about’ school may be valid resistance to aesthetic terms set forth by school officials that exclude their cultural backgrounds. Second, I want to learn more from the example of sovereign indigenous education communities, such as Sante Fe Indian School, that have combatted the legacy of the boarding school era with community-centered education. And, as always, I look forward to learning from other new and future teachers’ reflections on this blog.


  • Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States by Joel H. Spring
  • Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation edited by Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen
  • Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring by Angela Valenzuela
  • They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School by K. Tsianina Lomawaima


danielDaniel Bergerson is a third-year undergraduate student in the Barnard Education Program at Columbia University. He is currently studying history, writing children’s stories, and interviewing educators—all in preparation for teaching social studies in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielBergerson

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