Learning to Divide the World

As the Europeans began their exploration, their main discovery was essentially how wrong they were and how little they knew. You would hope they would use this shock to be humbled and learn from those around them. We know that was not actually the case and instead they saw it as an opportunity to proclaim they had discovered the “new world”.

In his book, Learning to Divide the World, John Willinsky describes them seem seeing this as a chance to “rebuilt a world that had been lost, and to build it with greater strength and integrity”. I found the language used quite interesting here – greater strength and integrity. This is something we are still led to believe the Western world have over the rest of the world.

Even down to when they implement new laws such as ensuring we all have “British values” – despite the very values outlined (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith) are universal or can be traced to have origins in foreign lands. The arrogance and entitlement of it all – fed by not a desire to learn but to capitalise. And that is precisely why it was so dangerous. Willinsky says, “knowledge was no longer sought in looking for the semblance amongst things; rather, the aim or scholarship was to determine differences”. By making something look very different to themselves, they were able to strengthen their own identify.

It can be said was not wholly or endemically evil – a question I am sure the indigenous people would have different views on. There were some instances of the white saviour complex. For example when India was colonised “Hasting saw himself as protecting the country from its own decline, as well as from the less learned among the British”.

Willinsky goes on to then discuss how this attitude and way of learning and discovering shaped the structures we see around us today. It was through imperialism that we have what we now come to understand as the education system – lectures, circuses, museums, zoological and botanical gardens. He says “imperialism proved a keen sponsor of an extensive public education on the benefits of global domination”. It is with this Eurocentric gaze that our systems – educational and judicial – were built and still stand today.

It will not do to try to forget a past that is not past – John Willinsky

And it was more than just knowing. It was ownership. A classing system was established for species – in Latin. “Linnaus insisted, with some pride, that his system could be acquired and applied by anyone (with a Latin education)”. I remember being taught about this very classing system in year 9 – just 13 years old and how superb this system is because it can be used to join up scholars all over the world. No acknowledgement of what names  were erased to make space for this. Places were named too. “Naming a place is about staking and extending a verbal claim to it” – names which had no relevance to the indigenous people who had lived there – erasing all its history like you had just discovered it. Some places were even named to honour heroes of the empire – soldiers, administrators, states and educators.

It made me consider what we value as education – the schooling provided by the state or privately, followed by university. Our learning at home – life skills and knowledge of our communities – not valued as an actual act of learning.


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