IDENTITY FORMATION IN ALTERNATIVE HIGH SCHOOLS
Planning secondary school programs for village adolescents requires an understanding of the fundamental development problem which must be solved in adolescence—the formation of a strong identity.
Identity is one of the most abused and yet still one of the most useful concepts in psychology. As Erikson points out:
Identity is a term used in our day with faddish ease; at this point I can only indicate how very complicated the real article is. For ego identity is partially conscious and largely unconscious; it is a psychological process reflecting social processes; it meets its crisis in adolescence but has grown throughout childhood and continues to reemerge in the crises of later years. The overriding meaning of it all . . . is the creation of a sense of sameness, a unity of the personality now felt by the individual and recognized by others as having consistency in time.1
Identity formation is misunderstood in cross-cultural education. "Identity" is much too narrowly viewed as a sense of ethnic identity, a feeling of pride in being an Indian or an Eskimo. Educational programs attempt to develop "identity" through Native heritage programs intended to boost self-esteem.2
While ethnic pride may be an important part of identity, it is only a small part of it. Identity formation is fundamentally the development of a set of unified values and directions which organize a life and give it meaning. Indeed, identity formation is much more akin to the old-fashioned concept of "character development" than it is to its present interpretation in Indian education as "ego-boosting."
For Indian and Eskimo children, the unsuccessful resolution of identity formation appears to be a central psychological problem that stunts their development and prevents their future growth into productive adults. Identity formation would be difficult for village adolescents even if they did go away to high school. Indeed, village teachers commonly note that their students "turn off " at about the seventh grade, the beginning of adolescence. Identity formation is difficult, in part, because traditionally self-made identities were not necessary. In traditional cultures, central values and available roles were fairly clear. If a man, for example, one usually became a hunter and provider; if a woman, one usually cared for a family. Traditionally, adolescents did not have to choose between competing values and lifestyles in order to synthesize a unique personal identity.
The task of identity formation is doubly difficult for Indian and Eskimo adolescents because the range of values and lifestyles between which they must choose is so much broader than the range available to many other adolescents. The Indian or Eskimo adolescent must somehow create an identity made up of many types of values—traditional, western, religious—which sometimes conflict. He must create an identity that has meaning not only in terms of his village community but also in terms of western society, which has become an important reference group.
Sending village children away to high school makes the already difficult task of identity formation much worse. Strong identity formation requires:3
These two conditions do not occur in high schools away from home.
When village adolescents go away to high school, value unification becomes very difficult. First, the child is detached from the set of values of the village and thus finds it hard to reconcile his childhood self with adult ways of living. As one college student put it:
You nervously wait for the moment when you will see your relatives, but you don't really know what to say or what to do because it was ages ago that you last saw them. You know that you have changed and you act and feel differently now. You also have different outlooks on things you didn't think about before. So here you are, left alone in that marginal life of yours.
Second, the village child away at high school is not even exposed to a unified set of western values; he often faces value confusion. Frequently the school staff contains young whites who adhere to the "new morality" and do not uphold the strict western values that the Native students have been taught in the village from teachers and religious leaders who represent western standards. For example, the open and irregular sexual behavior of some staff members often shocks and unnerves the students who see these people as hypocritical. A Native dormitory attendant expressed such feelings about some school staff members: "It is just not right, those people living together right in front of the children."
Also confusing to the students are the different, often conflicting, values of different staff members. These disagreements and value contradictions often create value cross-pressures on students which, in turn, add to their confusion. Such a condition was present in every school we studied. We always found a contingent of traditional staff who emphasized "getting ahead" and traditional morality. Also always present and creating contradictory pressures on students were staff who emphasized the new morality of a free lifestyle and development of intense personal relationships. Non-Native students who have grown up within a strong value framework transmitted by their families can deal with value conflicts among school staff and indeed often find the opposing points of view intellectually exciting. For village students, however, the result can be disorientation.
During a single year in the Bethel Regional High School, for example, village students had to adjust to the radically different standards of a liberal and a conservative dormitory director. At the same time, a student "ombudsman" in the dormitory (sent in by a different agency) preached a radical lifestyle. When asked about students, he asserted that "If he's not militant, I don't know him.4
In the school, the village students went from teachers who warned them against the pleasures of drugs to the principal's office. There a poster of a bear rubbing its back against a post proclaimed: "If it feels good, do it." An observer who knows the principal realized the sign was merely a joke, but village students often do not understand such irony. All they perceive is a barrage of confusing, contradictory messages about how one is supposed to grow up.
The second condition of successful identity formation—recognition and approval from significant figures in one's life—is also rarely met in high schools away from home. Because of academic deficiencies, social and emotional problems, village students frequently receive disapproval from significant western adults. Further, because of the new styles of behavior they learn away from home, village students sometimes receive disapproval from significant people at home.
Village parents, in addition to their traditional values, often hold strong Christian values and may disapprove of their children's new behavior by both sets of standards. Parents are irritated that some returning students act like whites, disapprove of their parents for not maintaining white standards of cleanliness in the village, and refuse to do housework. Parents are especially distressed, however, by what many see as erosion of their children's moral character. According to northwest Alaska parents:
So many learn to smoke and drink when away from home. Respect for other people is lost. Before going away to high school, many children attend church with their parents. When they return home, the parents are saddened because the children no longer want to attend church . . . the children cannot do without parental guidance. This reason alone causes many of our youngsters to walk down the wrong path in life.5
Many village students told us that the community expects high school students to turn bad when they go away to school, and they agree that this occurs. As one said:
Lots of kids who go to high school are good children at home, obey, and don't talk back to their parents. Then they come back and drink and smoke. They're not good to their parents. They think they're so big. I saw that happen with my parents.
A village student in our study group, while an extreme case, illustrates a common expectation that students turn bad at high school. She arrived at a teacher's home at 4 a.m. in the morning, drunk and crying hysterically. She said that she had left home a good Christian girl and had started to drink, smoke, and go with men. Now she couldn't return to the village again.
Village students who attended high schools away from home exhibited many signs of unsuccessful identity formation. Some Beltz graduates, for example, when asked about what they wanted to do with their lives, responded, "I just want to take it easy" or "live luxuriously." Some students at Beltz tried to form an identity by attaching themselves to another student. If, in such a situation, one of the students left, the other fell apart.6 Also, some Anchorage students seemed to view themselves as split into a Native half and a White half without any way to reconcile the two. One village college student vividly expressed such a problem:
There is a White part of me and a Native part of me. The White part of me has no childhood and has no parents. But the Native part of me has no adult.7
How School Programs Can Facilitate Successful Identity Formation
Our study of different types of high schools, as well as the body of educational theory and research, suggests that schools, if structured in certain ways, help students to acquire a unified set of values and directions.8 In creating such a school, the following three conditions appear to be crucial:
Presenting Clear Values and Directions in Harmony with Those of the Village
Most village students in high schools away from home are exposed to confused, contradictory values. Much of this value disorientation results from the out-of-school curriculum, especially the attitudes students learn in those towns which have high levels of social problems. For example, village students often form significant emotional relationships with confused and rootless young men of the town. These disoriented people can become central influences in the students lives. Village students also began to adopt the attitudes prevalent among some people in these towns, that the high rates of homicide and suicide in the town were just the way things naturally were. Thus, when the dormitory director committed suicide in Bethel, for example, the students were not particularly shocked. They had come to see such events as the natural course of things. One Bethel resident expressed the value dislocation that village students experienced in the town:
Everyone is on his own in Bethel. There is no sense of community. There's no public opinion or pressure against anything. The main problem is that kids come in out of the village where life is structured and there is some kind of order and then come to Bethel where anything goes. The main problem is that they don't know what's right from wrong. They can't learn it in Bethel.
Nor did the school program in the regional schools present strong, clear directions. Most schools in the years studied had adopted a "freedom in education" philosophy which teachers misunderstood to mean no structure or direction. The purpose of this approach was to develop self-discipline and responsibility. But this purpose was not explained to students who saw the program as chaos. Moreover, even had the purpose been explained, the program could not have succeeded because self-discipline is not developed by doing nothing more than placing children in a free environment. Indeed, the educators most committed to developing a sense of responsibility through free schools have been forced to conclude that:
One ghetto student responded to the teacher's request that he control his behavior by saying: "I don't know how."10 The failures of the free school movement with minority group children has turned attention not to doing away with structure altogether, but rather to determining what types of structures are desirable in educational programs.
The high schools attended by village students attempted to assist students to form strong identities through incorporation of Native cultural heritage programs. But many students did not see relevance of courses dealing with survival on the tundra or basketweaving to their adult lives. Moreover, this educational direction was not supported by most people important in the students' lives. While one faction in Bethel supported such programs, for example, other factions and indeed some of the students' parents saw them as pointless. Native art and history courses have as much place and indeed more place in these schools than do western art and history courses. In a less factionalized situation, students would probably have enjoyed such courses. But to expect Native history and art courses alone to help village students solve their identity problems makes as much sense as expecting western art and history courses to help western adolescents solve their identity problems.
Presenting clear educational values and directions in school which harmonize with those students learned in childhood is an extremely difficult task. But this task can best be solved when high school programs are located in the student's home village. In a village school, teachers have direct contact with the community and thus become aware of its values, economic orientations, and respected adult roles. Indeed, some of the village high school teachers pointed out that they were developing a high school curriculum based on local styles of living and the local economy. In a large school, which draws students from different communities, it is difficult to develop such educational directions which reflect community orientations, because the school is detached from the community. Moreover, the school staff is also much more likely to be divided on educational goals since the staff is large and since abstract educational debates cannot be anchored in the concrete needs of any particular village.
A Personalized School Climate with Extensive, Intimate Teacher-Student Relationships
Values and directions are acquired primarily through significant, personal relationships. They are developed by identifying with and modeling one's self after the people important in one's life. In most high schools away from home, students' significant relationships were not with well-integrated adults who could provide guidance, but rather with peers who provided little help. Only in those cases where students were placed with unusually good boarding home families did the students develop important emotional relationships with adults who could then help them understand the world and develop directions for their lives. Such a role was also partially fulfilled by the Beltz teachers who lived for a short time in the dormitory and influenced students through informal contacts, such as talking to them late at night about goals and plans. Fine private boarding schools view such intimate relationships between teachers and students as the essence of the educational approach required for strong personal development.
A personalized climate, where students have extensive, intimate contact with teachers, is much more likely to occur in a small village high school. Of course, village high school teachers can relate to their students in a formal and impersonal style. However, they are less likely to do so. In a small village school, teachers may get to know students by teaching several subjects and through organizing extracurricular activities. Informal personal contact with students is also likely to occur through the teachers' participation in general activities in the community. In a large, bureaucratic school, teachers' roles are limited and specialized. Most teachers at the regional schools and especially in Anchorage high schools pointed out that they rarely got to know students because they only saw them for one subject a day. In such schools, only exceptional teachers opposed the norms of the school and developed the personal relationships with students that increased learning.11 Such a personal school climate was an important cause of the success of the Anchorage Rural Transition Center and CORE classes—school programs which closely resembled a village high school.
Peer Group Support for School Values and Goals
For adolescents, the peer group is tremendously important in setting standards of behavior. Adolescents use strong, cohesive peer groups to help them overcome dependency on their families and develop independent identities as young adults. Thus, adolescents typically turn from the family to the peer group for emotional support and guiding standards. At this stage of life, achieving security within the peer group by conforming to its norm is of supreme importance.
In different high school environments, different peer group values developed. These values then became very powerful in setting either positive or negative standards for student behavior. In Bethel during the 1971-72 year, for example, peer group values favored lack of cooperation and school absenteeism. At Beltz during the 1972-73 year, wild drinking was the way to status in the peer group. Thus, removing the particular individuals who were problem drinkers had little effect, because new students merely assumed the negative leadership roles established by peer group values.
In the Anchorage Boarding Home Program, in contrast, an educational situation was structured which encouraged a village peer group to support positive developmental goals. The "Aquarius 4H Club," a homogeneous group of boarding home program students, offered dances and other social activities valued by the group. Thus, the peer group developed standards opposing negative behavior that interfered with club activities. At dances, for example, the students themselves monitored drinking and vandalism. Since the peer group valued club leadership, when the particular students who first assumed club leadership roles left (through the Dillingham Foreign Study Program), new students assumed these roles. As one advisor said, "They took the cream of the crop, but there's always someone just as good that comes to do the job." In short, whether positive or negative behavior occurs in an adolescent group depends not merely on the personal qualities of the individuals but also on what roles are established as important by the peer group.
Adolescent peer groups, with their tremendous influence in setting standards of behavior for their members, could be crucial supports for positive behavior if directed in this way by the school. But only a few limited areas, such as basketball, do schools create and channel adolescent peer groups. Many teachers have observed that such teams can have powerful effects on members. Problem drinkers, as members of a team, will often give up alcohol, at least until the season ends and the team breaks up.
By creating and channeling strong peer groups, schools could mobilize adolescents' energies in support of school goals. What is required, first of all, is for the school staff to form a close peer group through activities important to the group. Second, the school staff should present positive directions and standards which are clearly related to the success of valued group activities. Youth groups, social activities, or community projects could be used in this way. Indeed, village high school teachers sometimes pointed out that such groups as the Boy Scouts or Teen Clubs were important in creating desirable behavior among village adolescents.
Developing cohesive peer groups in support of school goals is easier in small village schools because the peer group itself is small and homogeneous. In large schools, where students come from various ethnic or regional groups (among which there have often existed long-standing hostilities), creating unified peer groups can prove more difficult. As at Beltz, peer group hostilities in such large schools often sabotage school programs.
High schools away from home make it much more difficult for village students to solve the central developmental problem of adolescence—formation of a strong identity. Students are removed from the village and from the standards they have learned in childhood. They are placed in high school environments where they receive confused, often contradictory messages about how to grow up. Village students away at high school rarely gain approval from significant western adults because of their academic difficulties and social problems. When they return home, their frequent rejection of village ways and their moral disintegration, by village standards, often earns disapproval from the significant people at home. The result is a state of identity confusion in which students often cannot form directions for their lives.
School programs can assist village adolescents to develop a unified set of values by:
This psychological climate can more easily develop in small village high schools, if they are organized as personal communities with unified values (see Figure 6-1). Large schools are almost inevitably organized as bureaucracies which create the impersonal, psychological climate with contradictory values that impedes strong identity formation among village adolescents (see Figure 6-2).
Small School Organized as a Community
1. High contact with student's home community.
2. Generalized informal staff roles.
3. Homogeneous students.
1. Consensus on educational values and directions.
2. Personal, friendly climate.
3. Peer group unity.
Effects on Students
1. Strong identity formation.
2. Low rate of social problems.
3. High participation.
Large School Organized as a Bureaucracy
1. Low contact with student's home community.
2. Specialized, limited staff roles.
3. Heterogeneous students.
1. Contradictory values and directions.
2. Impersonal climate.
3. Hostile, independent peer groups.
Effects on Students
1. Identity confusion.
2. High rates of social problems.
3. Low participation in school activities.
1 Erik Erikson, "Youth: Fidelity and Diversity," Daedalus, Vol. 91, (1962) 5-27.
2 This approach is coming under increasing criticism for failing to produce competent, confident adults. See "Indian Schools: Is Ego Boosting Enough?", New York Times, July 15, 1973. The weakness of this approach is that increased self-esteem requires meaningful personal achievement, not only identification with accomplishment of past generations. As Erikson points out, "A weak ego does not gain substantial strength from being persistently bolstered. A strong ego . . . does not need, and in fact is immune to, any attempt at artificial inflation. Its tendency is toward the testing of what . . . feels real." Erik Erikson. "Identity and the Life Cycle," Psychological Issues, 1:10 (1959) p. 47.
3 These conditions are based upon Erik Erikson's discussions in "Identity and the Life Cycle," Psychological Issues, 1:10, 1959.
4 This was more talk than fact. The ombudsman helped many students in the dormitory who were not militants. The point is that his explicit values, which he was teaching students, were narrowly militant.
5 Summarized by Senator Blodgett, Conference on Alaska Native Secondary Education, Sitka, Alaska, (December 19-20, 1968). Transcript of proceedings.
6 Erikson discusses this form of identity confusion in Identity and the Life Cycle, op. cit. "Because of an early identity hunger, our patients are apt to attach themselves to one brother or sister in a way resembling the behavior of twins . . . rage and paralysis follow the sudden insight that there is enough identity only for one, and that the other seems to have made off with it." p. 93.
7 I am indebted to Mr. Jim Cole, University of Alaska counselor, for this observation.
8 Much of the research on the impact of schools on value formation has been done at the college level. Not all types of colleges have been found to influence value development but rather colleges structured as small, homogeneous communities with clear values and few value cross-pressures. See especially C.E. Bidwell and R.S. Vreeland, "College Education and Moral Orientations: An Organizational Approach," Sociology of Education, Vol. 38 (1969) 233-250; RS Vreeland and CE Bidwell, "Classifying University Departments: An Approach to the Analysis of Their Effects Upon Undergraduates' Values and Attitudes," Sociology of Education, Vol. 39 (1966) 237-254. T. Newcomb, Personality and Social Change, New York: Dryden Press, 1943. The literature of identification and internalization of values is also pertinent. See especially J. Aronfreed, "The Concept of Internalization," in D.A. Goslin (Ed.) Handbook of Socialization, Chicago: Rand McNalley, 1969.
9 "The Discoveries of the Alternative School Movement," The Public Interest, Vol. 32, (1973) 120-123. See also J. Kozol, "Free Schools: A Time for Candor," Saturday Review. (March 4, 1972) 51-54. R. Barth, Open Education and the American School, New York, Athathon Press, 1972.
10 Barth, Ibid.
11 A series of experiments suggest that personal warmth significantly increases learning in a cross-cultural situation. See J.S. Kleinfeld, "Classroom Climate and Verbal Participation of Indian and Eskimo Students in Integrated Classrooms," Journal of Educational Research, 67:2 (1973) 51-52; J.S. Kleinfeld, "Effects of Nonverbally Communicated Personal Warmth on the Intelligence Test Performance of Indian and Eskimo Adolescents," Journal of Social Psychology, 1973 (forthcoming); J.S. Kleinfeld, "Effects of Nonverbal Warmth on the Learning of Eskimo and White Students," Journal of Social Psychology 1973 (forthcoming).