Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End

Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End

Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End

Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End


Examines education’s contribution to colonialism and explores how this legacy can be overcome.

“The barbarian rules by force; the cultivated conqueror teaches.” This maxim from the age of empire hints at the usually hidden connections between education and conquest. In Learning to Divide the World, John Willinsky brings these correlations to light, offering a balanced, humane, and beautifully written account of the ways that imperialism’s educational legacy continues to separate us into black and white, east and west, primitive and civilized.

Considering a dazzling range of subjects, Willinsky discusses how the discovery of the New World inspired European culture with “the desire to take hold of the world . . . to enumerate, order, identify, and differentiate.” Willinsky reveals how this “will to know” became a foundation of the apparatus of imperialism, as shown in phenomena ranging from zoos to the British Museum to National Geographic. Through analyses of colonial schooling, anthropology, and the formation of academic subjects instrumental in the expansion of empire (history, geography, science, language and literature), Willinsky argues that education was and is the research and development arm of imperialism. Drawing on contemporary classrooms and materials, he considers how schools continue to educate the young within the “colonial imaginary.”


It is hard to know what to do about a world beset by struggles of ethnic nationalism, hardening of racial lines, and staggering divides between wealth and poverty. For my part as a teacher, I have to wonder at what we are to teach the young about such a world. How do we help them understand why differences of color and culture, gender and nationality continue to have such profound consequences? It won't do to fall back on the old lessons, to tell students that such differences are simply a fact of life, to tell them that the suspicion and distrust with which these differences are often regarded are the product of sheer ignorance. They are unlikely to be reassured that only for want of an education much like the one they are receiving, the world suffers such discord and division. They might, however, appreciate how this faith in education would help teachers through their own day.

Perhaps it is time to turn the tables on education in trying to make sense of this divided world. After all, our schooling has not been so much the great redeemer of prejudices as the tireless chronicler of what divides us. Education is no small player in giving meaning to these differences. We are schooled in differences great and small, in borderlines and boundaries, in historical struggles and exotic practices, all of which extend the meaning of difference. We are taught to discriminate in both the most innocent and fateful ways so that we can appreciate the differences between civilized and primitive, West and East, first and third worlds. We become adept at identifying the distinguishing features of this country, that culture, those people. We are educated in what we take to be the true nature of difference. Yet if education can turn a studied distance between people into a fact of nature, education can also help . . .

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