“Kill the Indian to save the man.”
This quote from Richard Henry Pratt explains the core educational philosophy of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a boarding school founded by Pratt in 1879. Youth from various reservations throughout the country were forced to attend the school in an attempt at Native American assimilation. The school punished children for speaking in their native languages and taught students industrial skills that would ideally allow them to integrate into white society.  While contemporary reservation schools do not share the assimilationist philosophy employed at Carlisle and other boarding schools, the quality of Native American education is still a major concern. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie explores the challenges faced by youth living on reservations today, as a result of unequal educational opportunities and racist assumptions.
Alexie’s semi-biographical book is a first-hand perspective of a young Spokane Indian named Arnold Spirit, Jr. The book revolves around Arnold’s decision to attend a high school outside the Spokane reservation to receive a better education. Arnold learns to adapt to the new environment despite the racial prejudice of his peers and teachers at Reardan High School and the animosity he receives from members of his reservation who felt he had abandoned the tribe “to become white.” The book provides an important view of the frequent disparity between the education and living conditions of people living on reservations and the white residents of nearby towns. The book also provides a framework for comparing the assimilation philosophy of the boarding school period and the contemporary experience of students growing up on reservations.
In the beginning of the book, Arnold is content with the education he has received on the Spokane reservation. However, on his first day of high school he finds his mother’s name on the inside cover of his textbook and is hit with the realization that she also once had a future, but was unable to escape life in the reservation. In anger, Arnold throws the book back at his teacher, Mr. P. Arnold is later confronted by Mr. P, and expects to be punished for his outburst. Instead Mr. P tells Arnold about the teaching philosophy employed at the beginning of his career on the reservation. Mr. P had participated in the physical punishment of students in an attempt to “kill the Indian and save the child.” Mr. P explains that this method of assimilation ultimately failed, and continues to tell Arnold that the reservation school cannot provide him the education he deserves as a bright young student.  At his teacher’s advice, Arnold enrolls at Reardan in pursuit of a better education and future. The rest of the book portrays the racist assumptions and privileges of Arnold’s white peers, as well as the challenge Arnold faces in his decision to reject the education provided to him on the reservation. Arnold eventually adapts and becomes successful at Reardan, but realizes that his rise above reservation life does not address the white racism still received by other members of the reservation.
Much like the students of the Carlisle school, Arnold was expected to adapt to white culture in order to become successful. Contemporary education rejects the assimilation philosophy and practices favored by boarding schools like Carlisle, but there is still inequality between the quality of education in reservation schools and those off the reservation. In this way, I think our educational system still perpetuates the view that adapting to the mainstream culture allows greater success than can be achieved on a reservation.
 Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, 25-36.