Not long ago, a Diné (Navajo) friend of mine, Lyla June Johnston, sent me a one-line email: “I am not going to Harvard… I am going to plant corn.”
Her statement signals a profound divergence from the path she’d set out on when she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. She is choosing instead to learn the lifeways of her culture, to become fluent in her language, to relearn traditional skills, to be intimate with the land. The dominant American culture does not encourage such a path.
We’d talked about it before, her decision to take a prestigious graduate course at Harvard. The usual themes came up: the doors that might be opened, the credibility that might be turned towards a good cause. I remember observing how common it is to adopt the values and mindsets of the environment in which one is immersed – to become a creature of the very system one sets out to subvert. We appreciated the toxicity of the story, “See, a Native American woman can make it big too and go to Harvard.” Toxic, because it celebrates the very same system of status and privilege that has marginalized the worldview, culture and value system she comes from.
It is often said that people like Lyla are role models for others of like background. Role models for what, though? For being bribed into complicity with the oppressor? For joining the world-devouring machine? For sacrificing local relationships and culture to the melting pot? Certainly, Lyla could rise high in the world symbolized by Harvard; she could become a professor herself one day, teaching young people anti-colonialist thinking. Nonetheless, all that instruction would be happening within a container – a classroom inside a course inside an elite university inside a system of higher education – that implicitly contradicts all she would want to teach. Her students would be thinking, “Sure, but in the end she is benefiting from the system too.”
Then there was the matter of a Harvard degree opening doors. The question is, doors to what? To be sure, many people today are more likely to listen to a native woman who also happens to be a Harvard PhD than to one who “only plants corn”. The door to the prestigious conferences, the think tanks, the halls of power would be closed. (Or so it would seem. Actually there are back doors to such places.) And that would be a shame – if indeed such places constituted the fulcrum of change in our society, if indeed such places are where the Important things are happening. Certainly, what is happening on Wall Street and Washington is more important than anything that goes on in a cornfield, right? Certainly, it is the people of talent and worth that get to rise to positions of power, and those of lesser gifts and lower cultural development who must settle for the fields, the hearth, the humble realms, right?
Wrong. What we see as the locus of power in the world is an illusion, born of the theory of change that our cultural beliefs dictate. It is one kind of revolution to enter the halls of power with the intent to turn them against themselves; to (paraphrasing the Caribbean-American writer Audre Lord) use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. It is a deeper kind of revolution to recognise the limitations of those tools, and to know that change might originate in the people and places we have seen as powerless. Lyla and the many people I meet like her no longer believe that the smart people at Harvard and Yale are going to find the answers and fix the world; therefore, they no longer seek admission to the elite club of world-fixers.
Lyla’s decision is also a sign of changing times. In past generations there were a few who overcame inconceivable obstacles to go to college, to make it in the White Man’s world. Their presence there was an affront to a ruling ideology that considered them part of an inferior race. Their achievements helped to unravel that story, both in the eyes of the white people and, more importantly, in the eyes of those of their own culture they inspired. Today, though, elite institutions salivate over people like Lyla, because their presence buttresses a new, more insidious story: a story of ‘equal opportunity’ and ‘diversity’ that obscures the ongoing systemic oppression of minorities, and ignores the demolition and absorption of their cultures into the dominant monoculture.
I am not saying there is not important work to be done within the institutions of power. I am only saying that such work is no more urgent than the work that older cultural frames validate, but that ours does not. Nor would I condemn anyone who chooses to work within the system. Some of us have gifts that are well suited to that work. But let us not overvalue what goes on in the halls of power; let us not blindly adopt the metrics of success that the establishment offers. It may very well be that a sense of purpose, play and life keeps you in the system; or it could be its ubiquitous bribes and threats. We can all tell the difference when we are honest with ourselves.
Who can know the effects of the story of The Woman Who Chose to Plant Corn? What I do know is that such choices operate levers of power that are invisible to our culture’s Story of the World. They invite synchronicity and induce the unexpected. They bring us to places we didn’t know existed. They create movement in a new direction, whereas abiding by the conventions of the dominant system merely adds to its inertia.
We are done with a world in which the logic of power is more important than the corn. When enough people live by that, the powerful will make different choices as well, acting in their role as barometers and channels of collective consciousness.
Please do not mistake Lyla’s choice for an exercise in ideological purity, as if she wished to avoid the taint of power. A better explanation is that she knows that Harvard is not where the action is. There are other paths to walk that are no less important, and it is crucial that someone walk them. I see more and more young people seeking them out today, from within the dominant culture and from its margins. They are walking out of our civilisation’s Story of the World; some are not even entering it.
The best and brightest are abandoning the ship, and even those who remain aboard are participating half-heartedly as they sense the inevitable shipwreck. Eventually even going through the motions of complicity becomes intolerable, as our hunger to live a meaningful life draws us towards a new and ancient story of interconnection, interbeing, and social, personal and ecological healing. Yet few of us are free of the programming of our youth, our indoctrination into the values of system; therefore our exit can be messy, subject to hesitation, relapses and diversions. As Lyla told me more recently, “While I know intellectually why I am doing this, I am still so brainwashed it is hard to really know it from my body.”
When I say I hope that many others follow Lyla’s example, I do not mean to offer her as an ideal of impeccable integrity. Like many of us, she has no map to follow into this uncharted territory of our civilisation’s transition; she has only a compass and, if my own experience is any guide, it is a wobbly one at that. It points towards a healed and just world, and guides us into its service. When enough of us follow it, however imperfectly, we will cut new trails leading out of the maze that entraps our civilisation
"Corncobs" by Sam Fentress. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons