Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Demography and the Imperialist Imagination

The will to know finds only idols.

Idolatry is not a popular topic for Canadian educators, and writer John Willinsky instead describes the will to know as the intellectual interest of imperialism, for “at its root was a desire to take hold of the world”. In Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End Willinsky leaves aside any discussion of global capitalist empire in order to examine the even more direct consequences of European colonial expansion, namely the categorization and classification of the world. Our education system is predicated on this division and naming, and yet we rarely look at the political and economic conquest that accompanied this “new knowledge”. Willinsky proposes an educational accountability that teaches how our system of knowledge developed, thus complicating the divisions we too often consider given. We used geographical examples in my “School and Society” seminar, and I do think these make the point most spectacularly. Why is it more important to know the location of present day Brazil than it is to understand the political history of the region? Why do we learn the name Baffin Island without knowing how it came to have that name?

Imperial education is the education of the industrial and managerial age. The conquering mind keeps hold of what it conquers by keeping it manageable, by orders and ranks. Our seminar also addressed the poorly-named hidden curriculum (could it be less hidden?), the task schools gave themselves of creating obedient and docile citizens through militant exercises. We were asked to think about how the contemporary school system replicates the status quo, but I soon became convinced that the “scientific” socio-economic model is unequipped to really speak to that question.

To explain I must say a little about my professor, but let it be known that this dissent was already voiced in seminar. The professor has several convictions that quickly became apparent, stemming from his initial claim that one is either racist or anti-racist. He is convinced that all the students entering his class have internalized certain racial and social prejudices and that the only solution to these divisive attitudes is to name them and denounce them with much gusto. Wielding statistics as weapons, he made a simple morality tale out of every historical and contemporary situation and sought to teach all the supposedly white students about their privileged whiteness (regardless of the protests of an Irish and a Portugese woman). Europe (whatever that is) was the unequivocal aggressor and the colonial project was likened to WWII, “except the bad guys won”. Where does this get us?

No study of colonialism can ignore the new manifestations of the imperial imperative, especially the push to classify the world according to monetary value. If our first task is to clearly identify where privilege lies, based on access to particular cultural communties and the wealth they command, we are accepting the dominant definition of privilege and only continuing the imperial project. We read a speech by James Baldwin for the same seminar in which he insists that the white people are the victims of their own oppression. They have deluded themselves; they do not know who they are. If only some of this wisdom could be brought into our pedagogy. If only we could learn that the managers of knowledge destroy themselves in their conceit. Such a claim upsets the neat division between victims and oppressors, but aren't these supposedly fixed divisions exactly what we should be challenging?

There is a certain strand of sociological orthodoxy that desperately needs the arts, or even psychology, to begin to think about the human condition. Sociology (in its crassest form) makes its home in demography, using gender, race and class to “classify” the world, thus extending the imperial imagination it seeks to challenge. The task I give myself is to bring a Yoderian pedagogy into the classroom, one that denies the binary of conquered and conqueror, and to hold a Dostoyevskian picture of humanity, in which human beings are not known according to what they are, but according to their sufferings, desires, and loves.

Warning: This is the first of what may be a barrage of posts in response to the climate of contemporary teacher education.


  1. Bring on the barrage . . . great start.

  2. Interesting topic. Sounds about right for OISE, based on reputation, although perhaps these issues come up in most Education programs? I've never paid close attention to what my friends and siblings studied in B.Ed. programs elsewhere.

    Do you have any Bruce Curtis on your reading list? He a historical sociologist who has written a lot about education, particularly its role as an instrument of state formation, focusing on the nineteenth century. From what I recall (I've read a couple articles), he employs a concept of social regulation that is somewhat more flexible than the binary models you describe. I don't think he's inclined toward meditations on the human condition, and he relies a bit too much on applications of Foucault, but he's also not your typical sociologist. I'd be interested to get your take if you read him.


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