Thoughts on the colonising effect of education.

This is going to be longer than usual but these thoughts have been running around in my mind for a while and, rather than break them up, I thought I’d put them all together here. My apologies for the long read but, to help you, here’s the executive summary. Firstly, we’re not going to get anywhere until all of us truly accept that University students are not some sort of different species but that they are actually junior versions of ourselves – not inferior, just less advanced. Secondly, education is heavily colonising but what we often tend to pass on to our students are mechanisms for conformity rather than the important aspects of knowledge, creativity and confidence.

Let me start with some background and look at the primary and secondary schooling system. There is what we often refer to as traditional education: classroom full of students sitting in rows, writing down the words spoken by the person at the front. Assignments test your ability to learn and repeat the words and apply this is well-defined ways to a set of problems. Then we have progressive education that, depending upon your socio-political alignment and philosophical bent, is either a way of engaging students and teachers in the process for better outcomes, more critical thought and a higher degree of creativity; or it is cats and dogs lying down together, panic in the streets, a descent into radicalism and anarchy. (There is, of course, a middle ground, where the cats and dogs sleep in different spots, in rows, but engage in discussions of Foucault.) Dewey wrote on the tension between these two apparatus (seriously, is there anything he didn’t write on?) but, as we know, he was highly opposed to the lining up on students in ranks, like some sort of prison, so let’s examine why.

Simply put, the traditional model is an excellent way to prepare students for factory work but it’s not a great way to prepare them for a job that requires independence or creativity. You sit at your desk, the teacher reads out the instructions, you copy down the instructions, you are assigned piece work to do, you follow the instructions, your work is assessed to determine if it is acceptable, if not, you may have to redo it or it is just rejected. If enough of your work is deemed acceptable, then you are now a successful widget and may take your place in the community. Of course, it will help if your job is very similar to this. However, if your deviation from the norm is towards the unacceptable side then you may not be able to graduate until you conform.

Now, you might be able to argue this on accuracy, were it not for the constraining behavioural overtones in all of this. It’s not about doing the work, it’s about doing the work, quietly, while sitting for long stretches, without complaint and then handing back work that you had no part in defining for someone else to tell you what is acceptable. A pure model of this form cripples independence because there is no scope for independent creation as it must, by definition, deviate and thus be unacceptable.

Progressive models change this. They break up the structure of the classroom, change the way that work is assigned and, in many cases, change the power relationship between student and teacher. The teacher is still authoritative in terms of information but can potentially handle some (controlled for societal reasons) deviation and creativity from their student groups.

The great sad truth of University is that we have a lot more ability to be progressive because we don’t have to worry about too many severe behavioural issues as there is enough traditional education going on below these levels (or too few management resources for children in need) that it is highly unlikely that students with severe behavioural issues will graduate from high school, let alone make it to University with the requisite grades.

But let’s return to the term ‘colonising’, because it is a loaded term. We colonise when we send a group of settlers to a new place and attempt to assert control over it, often implicit in this is the notion that the place we have colonised is now for our own use. Ultimately, those being colonised can fight or they can assimilate. The most likely outcome if the original inhabitants fight is they they are destroyed, if those colonising are technologically superior or greatly outnumber them. Far more likely, and as seen all around the world, is the requirement for the original inhabitants to be assimilated to the now dominant colonist culture. Under assimilation, original cultures shrink to accommodate new rules, requirements, and taboos from the colonists.

In the case of education, students come to a University in order to obtain the benefits of the University culture so they are seeking to be colonised by the rules and values of the University. But it’s very important to realise that any positive colonisation value (and this is a very rare case, it’s worth noting) comes with a large number of negatives. If students come from a non-Western pedagogical tradition, then many requirements at Universities in Australia, the UK and America will be at odds with the way that they have learned previously, whether it’s power distances, collectivism/individualism issues or even in the way that work is going to be assigned and assessed. If students come from a highly traditional educational background, then they will struggle if we break up the desks and expect them to be independent and creative. Their previous experiences define their educational culture and we would expect the same tensions between colonist and coloniser as we would see in any encounter in the past.

I recently purchased a game called “Dog Eat Dog“, which is a game designed to allow you to explore the difficult power dynamics of the colonist/colonised relationship in the Pacific. Liam Burke, the author, is a second-generation half-Filipino who grew up in Hawaii and he developed the game while thinking about his experiences growing up and drawing on other resources from the local Filipino community.

The game is very simple. You have a number of players. One will play the colonist forces (all of them). Each other player will play a native. How do you select the colonist? Well, it’s a simple question: Which player at the table is the richest?

As you can tell, the game starts in uncomfortable territory and, from that point on, it can be very challenging as the the native players will try to run small scenarios that the colonist will continually interrupt, redirect and adjudicate to see how well the natives are playing by the colonist’s rules. And the first rule is:

The (Native people) are inferior to the (Occupation people).

After every scenario, more rules are added and the native population can either conform (for which they are rewarded) or deviate (for which they are punished). It actually lies inside the colonist’s ability to kill all the natives in the first turn, should they wish to do so, because this happened often enough that Burke left it in the rules. At the end of the game, the colonists may be rebuffed but, in order to do that, the natives have become adept at following the rules and this is, of course, at the expense of their own culture.

This is a difficult game to explain in the short form but the PDF is only $10 and I think it’s an important read for just about anyone. It’s a short rule book, with a quick history of Pacific settlement and exemplars, produced from a successful Kickstarter.

Let’s move this into the educational sphere. It would be delightful if I couldn’t say this but, let’s be honest, our entire system is often built upon the premise that:

The students are inferior to the teachers.

Let’s play this out in a traditional model. Every time the students get together in order to do anything, we are there to assess how well they are following the rules. If they behave, they get grades (progress towards graduation). If they don’t conform, then they don’t progress and, because everyone has finite resources, eventually they will drop out, possibly doing something disastrous in the process. (In the original game, the native population can run amok if they are punished too much, which has far too many unpleasant historical precedents.) Every time that we have an encounter with the students, they have to come up with a rule to work out how they can’t make the same mistake again. This new rule is one that they’re judged against.

When I realised how close a parallel this, a very cold shiver went down my spine. But I also realised how much I’d been doing to break out of this system, by treating students as equals with mutual respect, by listening and trying to be more flexible, by interpreting a more rigid pedagogical structure through filters that met everyone’s requirements. But unless I change the system, I am merely one of the “good” overseers on a penal plantation. When the students leave my care, if I know they are being treated badly, I am still culpable.

As I started with, valuing knowledge, accuracy,  being productive (in an academic sense), being curious and being creative are all things that we should be passing on from our culture but these are very hard things to pass on with a punishment/reward modality as they are all cognitive in aspect. What is far easier to do is to pass on culture such as sitting silently, being bound by late penalties, conformity to the rules and the worst excesses of the Banking model of education (after Freire) where students are empty receiving objects that we, as teachers, fill up. There is no agency in such a model, nor room for creativity. The jug does not choose the liquid that fills it.

It is easy to see examples all around us of the level of disrespect levelled at colonised peoples, from the mindless (and well-repudiated) nonsense spouted in Australian newspapers about Aboriginal people to the racist stereotyping that persists despite the overwhelming evidence of equality between races and genders. It is also as easy to see how badly students can be treated by some staff. When we write off a group of students because they are ‘bad students’ then we have made them part of a group that we don’t respect – and this empowers us to not have to treat them as well as we treat ourselves.

We have to start from the basic premise that our students are at University because they want to be like us, but like the admirable parts of us, not the conformist, factory model, industrial revolution prison aspects. They are junior lawyers, young engineers, apprentice architects when they come to us – they do not have to prove their humanity in order to be treated with respect. However, this does have to be mutual and it’s important to reflect upon the role that we have as a mentor, someone who has greater knowledge in an area and can share it with a more junior associate to bring them up to the same level one day.

If we regard students as being worthy of respect, as being potential peers, then we are more likely to treat them with a respect that engenders a reciprocal relationship. Treat your students like idiots and we all know how that goes.

The colonial mindset is poisonous because of the inherent superiority and because of the value of conformity to imposed rules above the potential to be gained from incorporating new and useful aspects of other cultures. There are many positive aspects of University culture but they can happily coexist with other educational traditions and cultures – the New Zealand higher educational system is making great steps in this direction to be able to respect both Maori tradition and the desire of young people to work in a westernised society without compromising their traditions.

We have to start from the premise that all people are equal, because to do otherwise is to make people unequal. We then must regard our students as ourselves, just younger, less experienced and only slightly less occasionally confused than we were at that age. We must carefully examine how we expose students to our important cultural aspects and decide what is and what is not important. However, if all we turn out at the end of a 3-4 year degree is someone who can perform a better model of piece work and is too heavily intimidated into conformity that they cannot do anything else – then we have failed our students and ourselves.

The game I mentioned, “Dog Eat Dog”, starts with a quote by a R. Zamora Linmark from his poem “They Like You Because You Eat Dog”. Linmark is a Filipino American poet, novelist, and playwright, who was educated in Honolulu. His challenging poem talks about the ways that a second-class citizenry are racially classified with positive and negative aspects (the exoticism is balanced against a ‘brutish’ sexuality, for example) but finishes with something that is even more challenging. Even when a native population fully assimilates, it is never enough for the coloniser, because they are still not quite them.

“They like you because you’re a copycat, want to be just like them. They like you because—give it a few more years—you’ll be just like them.
And when that time comes, will they like you more?”

R. Zamora Linmark, “They Like You Because You Eat Dog”, from “Rolling the R’s”

I had a discussion once with a remote colleague who said that he was worried the graduates of his own institution weren’t his first choice to supervise for PhDs as they weren’t good enough. I wonder whose fault he thought that was?


Educating about Evil

While we focus on our discipline areas for education, we can never lose sight of the important role that teachers have in a student’s life. As I’ve said (in ones way or another) repeatedly, we have large footprints and a deep shadow: thinking that we are only obliged to worry about mathematics or the correct location of the comma is to risk taking actions that have a far greater impact than intended.

This is why I have no time for educators who sleep with their students, because they have reduced anything positive or supportive that they ever said to the student into a part of the seduction and it contaminates the relationship that the student will have with authority, possibly for the rest of their life. In the strongest terms I condemn this, not the least because it is almost always illegal, immoral and wrong, but because it is, at its heart, unscholarly, unthinking and anti-educational. If you want to teach, then you’ve put yourself in a position where your voice is going to carry more weight – and this brings responsibilities. Naively enough, one of the key responsibilities for me is that we must think carefully about our actions so that, by our thoughtless action or inaction, we do not facilitate evil.

I do not have a belief system that gives me a convenient Devil so, for me, evil is a concept that is very abstract, but no less real for not having a trident and cloven hooves. I know it when I see it. I know it when I see its hand at work and it is the shape of evil’s hand that I generally discuss with my students. Let me show you.

Elizabeth Eckford, girl in dark sunglasses, attempting to enter Central High in the Little Rock School District. (Photo: Will Counts)

Can you see it? Let me show you from another angle.

The girl screaming racist abuse is Hazel Massery. The year is 1957. (Photo: Will Counts)

That’s a 15 year old girl standing at the front who is, under established legal precedent, trying to enter a previously all-white school. The girl behind her, about the same age, is yelling this: “Go home, n____! Go back to Africa.” Those soldiers you see are national guardsman, stationed not to help an isolated 15 year old girl but, instead, to keep her and the other 8 students who haven’t shown up today, from bringing their black selves into this white classroom.

I see the hand of evil all over this incident but, via these photographs, but I see it most with its scaly digits clutched around Hazel Massery’s mouth. She had a family with troubles and a background entrenched racism, and Hazel was a troubled girl but, in this moment, she was a hysterical, screaming puppet, baying for the blood of a 15-year old girl who was just another human being. The people around Elizabeth are yelling “Lynch her!” “Drag her away!” Women who look like your grandma are spitting on her. But look at Hazel Massery. It’s hard to find a more spectacular example of the evil of the mob than this?

Fifty-five years ago this month, nine students tried to make it into the school and, finally, after being turned away three times by National Guardsman, they managed to enter, escorted by soldiers of the 101st Airborne. Some of the people in that crowd, smiling, chuckling, taking pictures – they are teachers. Elizabeth’s ongoing problems at school, and they were many, included one teacher who would not even take anything directly from Elizabeth’s hands because of the colour of Elizabeth’s skin. Elizabeth was systematically abused, isolated and bullied up until the time that the school got closed and she had to try and complete her studies by herself.

After months of abuse, one entry from Elizabeth’s experience reads: “She said that except for some broken glass thrown at her during lunch, she really had had a wonderful day.”

When I was a teenager, I attended a talk where a minister said that he had always expected the test of his faith and integrity to be a suave man with horns and a tail, wearing a good suit, who offered him a dollar to smoke a cigarette and spit on the Bible. As he got older, he realised that evil, in many forms, was much harder to recognise and, of course, that sometimes doing nothing counted as evil, if you didn’t take the opportunity to do good. (As I later realised, in the style of Edmund Burke!)

You know, I don’t expect that much of a lot of people, if no-one has gone to the trouble to actually educate them and shake those xenophobic beliefs that seem to accumulate when we’re in small, scared bands and huddled in the dark. But I do expect a great deal of anyone who takes up the role of educator. I expect them to stand up for the truth. To go looking for the light if they realise that they’re in the dark. To treat all students as what they could be rather than what they have been assumed to be.

But, base level, in any activity regarding students and mobs, formed from stupidity and bigotry, I expect the teachers to be in a circle around the students and facing out, standing between the mob and their charges, certainly not facing in and taking part in the discrimination.

There’s a Vanity Fair article where you can read more about this. We have, I am thankful to say, come a very long way but it is quite obvious that there is still some way to go. The VF article talks a lot about the good people of the community, who stood up, who helped up, who realised that this was wrong and you should read it because it is a story of hope. But let us never lose sight of what evil looks like, because I need to train my students to see it so that they can stamp on it.

Push it back into the darkness where it belongs and blind it with truth, facts, science, reasoning, enlightenment and goodness. In 100 years time I want someone who sees that picture to not even be able to understand why this would have happened. I want cute kids to cock their heads to one side and look confused – because they can see an obviously visual difference but not inequality or divide, and hence not establish it as in immutable categorical statement of worth or ability. I think we’re all part of the glorious pathway that will lead to that great and wonderful time. Naive? Yes. But we have to start somewhere and, fifty-five years ago, Elizabeth and eight other brave young people did just that. We’re just carrying it on.


(ultimately) Racism: Vivian Chum Writes About Her Seventh Grade Experience

I’m reading a book called “The Moment”, which claims to contain “Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories” and, you’ll be relieved to hear, this book is delivering what it promises on the cover. It’s put out by Smith Magazine and is 125 of the pivotal life moments of “famous & obscure” writers and artists. Each story is short, pithy and (so far) worth reading.

Fair warning, this is a post about one person’s account of an event that may never have happened – but here is my reaction to it. One of my definitions of a writer is that they can react to an event that may never have happened and show you something interesting, perhaps even useful.

Today, I am writing in reaction to Vivian Chum’s ‘moment’ about the time that she, and all other non-white students in her Texas public school, were called to a meeting with the public address announcement “All seventh-grade minority students, report to the cafeteria.” There is no date on this story but, given that (according to the bio I’ve found) Chum graduated from Rice in 2002, we can work backwards and put this in the late 80s to early 90s – not the 50s or 60s. So we’ll start from the fact that a segregated announcement drew all of the non-whites to the cafeteria – African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American.

The point of the assembly was to instruct the students in the importance of reducing their underperformance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills set, compared to white students. It is, of course, bar graphs on a screen time because nothing shows students how to achieve more than a dry PowerPoint presentation of underperformance and an exhortation to work harder, study more, be more focused. After all, school funding is tied to performance in this test – here is a battery of graphs showing African-American and Hispanic student performance. For some reason, Asian-Americans aren’t on these particular underperformance graphs.

Chum, looking around the room, notices that some of the best performers in the seventh-grade are sitting here – but because they are non-white, they are here regardless of their actual achievement. She’s thinking about the lessons they’ve learned about racism, and the KKK and the Nazis, about the slave trade and she’s uncomfortable being here and, increasingly, angry, but she’s 11 or 12 and she’s not sure why she’s feeling this way.

No-one is in chains.

No one has thrown a rope over a tree branch.

No-one is even explicitly calling anyone a bad word.

And, yet, she knows that this is wrong. This is unfair. She wants to tear up every award or recognition that she’s ever been given because, of course, today the truth is finally out. She’s not the same. She’s a statistic in terms of test compliance and her race is more important than her individuality.

The (positive) lesson that Chum takes away from this is that this is the last time that she will ever take anything like this without speaking up, without walking out or not even going to things like this.

But, if her account is to be believed, then this is a tale of ignorance, racism, wrongheadedness and unthinking compliance with imposed test standards that is shocking enough, but frankly appalling when we place it into the last 20 years.

When I was at HERDSA, a speaker talked about providing support for those students who were struggling, or were having trouble adapting because of family background, and stressed the importance of making time to talk to every student. Instead of forcing the under-achievers to make more time in their schedule to fit in pastoral care and to drag themselves out of classes to go to ‘under achiever’ events, every student had a scheduled time to talk about things. Yes, this is a large investment of time but this addresses all of the arguments about ‘ignoring the big achievers’ or ‘focusing on the outliers’ and allow a much greater sense of community and ‘wholeness’ across the class.

When I was at school, we had an active remedial mathematics and english program run, very discreetly, across all of the years of secondary school. At the same we had a very active extension and stretch program, too. To be honest, to this day, I would not know how many (or who) of my classmates were in either. It was an accepted fact that across all of the boys (yes, single sex) in the school, there would be a range and it was up to the school, which was full fee-paying (thanks, Mum), to provide support to lift up those who were struggling and to provide interest and extension for those who could go further.

This, of course, has had a major impact upon me and this is what I expect of education: for everyone, regardless of their background and abilities, and according to their needs. Reading Chum’s account of how stupid we can be on occasion, it only drives home how lucky I was to be at such a school and the overall responsibility of educators to look at some of the things that we are asked to do and, where appropriate, say “No” so that we don’t force 12 year olds to have to stand up to protect their own rights as individuals, rather than indistinguishable pawns of a race.