This week, Mike asked us to read Learning to Divide the World: Educating at Empire’s End for class. He wanted us to dive into Willinsky’s argument, examine our own schooling, and venture to ponder if we really do believe that teachers need to be “accountable,” as per Willinsky’s interpretation.
John Willinsky’s Learning to Divide the World: Educating at Empire’s End argues that within every classroom, curriculum, and lesson we teach there is an embedded history. This history defines how we teach, why we teach, and what we teach. Largely, this history favours the white privilege. This refers back to the gigantic English empire, from which most of our modern day schooling framework is derived.
Even outside of curriculum, we see an embedded white privilege: Willinsky gives examples of students from Kathy’s class who define their identity. The students who were white defined themselves by their activities, their interests, and their appearance, mentioning nothing about their perceived “race,” while the Asian students defined themselves by their cultural heritage and perceived “race.” This exemplifies Willinsky’s thesis that we need to actively educate our students on the implicit and explicit forms of racial division, stereotyping, and racism.
Willinsky argues that teachers need to be accountable to their students—we owe our students the understanding of the underwritten and denied historical context of everything we teach. It is our duty to bring these issues to the forefront, rather than perpetuating the white privilege within the curriculum we teach. I whole heartedly agree. There is always a time and place to hold a discussion about the “why” within our instruction. Educating students on the fault-lines of our teaching and curriculum will lead to deeper understanding, as well as a safer classroom community and opportunity to explore different ways of learning as presented by a variety of cultures serving more than just the students who were born into a white privilege. Imperialism has taught us how to divide the world. It is our job to piece it back together for our students.
Within my own education, I can recall one instance of imperialism and white privilege that baffled me until about an hour ago. In grade three, we were instructed to do a heritage project. We had to go home and ask our parents what our nationality was. Like a good student, I hurried home and found that I was part English, part French, and part Acadian. The next day, I told my teacher that I wanted to do a project on Acadia (located on the Eastern Coast of Canada), and she said that I had to do a project on England, since Canada wasn’t a good choice for me. I was so mad because the girl who was sitting beside me got to do a project on Canada because she was First Nations.
I am quite proud of my Acadian heritage. I would have loved to learn more about being Acadian. In this case, I feel like white privilege worked against me – because I was white, I couldn’t possibly be “Canadian.” This gave me a sense that I didn’t truly belong as an Acadian. Whenever heritage came up for years following, I never mentioned that I have an Acadian heritage. Now, I am proud to say that I have an Acadian heritage. As Willinsky would argue, I also say that I am Canadian.
In this instance, I feel that my teacher should have taken time to talk to us about Imperialism (maybe not in those exact words), and talk about the difference between heritage and nationality. She perpetuated the divide within our classroom with this project, rather than fostering a sense of multiculturalism.
In my grade twelve English class, we examined colonialism and scratched the surface of white privilege. However, the books we read really characterized African cultures as primitive and barbaric, despite the theme of the book being anti-colonial. We also only explored post-colonialism within Africa. We never even bothered to talk about Asia, South America, or anywhere else. This class had a fantastic opportunity to dive into Imperialism, colonialism, implicit/explicit racism, and beyond, but unfortunately, we had an exam to write and another unit to work through, so the topic was abandoned.
I guess that I am arguing “Education” is getting in the way of educating our students. Curriculum holds so much potential beyond what we are required to teach. We can meta-teach: teach about teaching these things. Willinsky wants all teachers to have a sense of accountability to their students, and meta-teaching will do just that. However, in order to meta-teach, teachers need to have an understanding of the embedded history within the topics they teach, the way they teach, and their own lives.