World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Willinsky, John. Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). 304 pp, $20.00. 

     From physics to literature, educators attempt to anchor their students in a knowledge base with a history going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And yet most treat their subjects ahistorically and, fundamentally, immutable. The development of academic disciplines such as biology, political science, and others is too often ignored, leaving students with the impression that they sprang up free from historical, cultural, or geographic contexts. It is this problem that Willinsky explores in his text. In his view, "educators owe those they teach some account...of what we have taught them about the world." (16) To convince others of this statement, Willinsky examines the heritage of a wide variety of disciplines that were heavily influenced by the expansion of European empires, with a particular focus on the British Empire. His goal is to encourage educators (and thus their students) to think critically about how imperialism fundamentally shaped particular disciplines and how this shaping introduced assumptions that are still with us today.

     The first three chapters of the book are concerned with the history of intellectual development in the age of imperialism. Willinsky begins by arguing that the "Age of Exploration" fundamentally altered the way Europeans saw their world. Contact with new societies and environments inaugurated an era where observation trumped intellectual authority and gave rise to a number of new disciplines such as anthropology and orientalism. (25) New systems for organizing this vast amount of knowledge emerged, leaving us the legacies of zoological nomenclature, scientific measurement, and Rousseau's concept of the "state of nature". Of course, this codification of "difference" was not value neutral. As Willinsky points out, classifying species, places, and peoples had the effect of universalizing knowledge, but universalizing it in a securely Eurocentric system. (35) Recognizing the biases that emerged from this "will to know" gives students that ability to critically appraise the knowledge they consume.

     Drawing heavily from Edward Said's work on orientalism, Willinsky considers the role of imperial exhibitions, museums, and zoological gardens. The arguments found here will be familiar to most historians of empire. Imperial spectacles were a way of creating perceived distance between the normative "self" and the exotic "Other". (58) Similarly, the museum and the encyclopedia removed objects from their context and reconstituted them in a European framework. Implicitly, this was an act of domination, by which "unknown" objects and peoples of the world became possessed by Europeans and symbolized the power and strength of imperial nation-states. The violence and dislocation that made such exhibits possible is rarely mentioned even today, and it is the duty of educators to help their students think critically about the messages that a museum or encyclopedia article contain. (87)

     Willinsky offers few new insights in his treatment of colonial education. Most scholars know that, to a large degree, colonial education was predicated on cultural imperialism and the creation of "brown Englishmen." Missionary schools not only brought Christ, but Western ways of living and thinking. In India, education was intended to create a Westernized class able to perform the basic functions of imperial administration while in Ireland its purpose was to eradicate nationalist sentiments (an arguable proposition). (100) Of course, sometimes educational processes were subverted from their original intentions; Willinsky identifies instances of Western women using the outlet of colonial education to undermine gender roles and modern scholarship has convincingly argued that modern anti-colonial movements owe much to Western education. We may think that cultural imperialism no longer plays a role in education, but Willinsky notes that it was not until 1973 that Canada allowed First Nations to participate in the education of their children. (95) Even in states relatively untouched by formal imperialism, such as China, textbooks treat mathematical progress as a Western phenomenon, failing to recognize that the foundations for the discipline were largely developed in the non-Western world. (108)

     The next five chapters consider the persistence of imperial ideology in the modern curriculum, starting with a treatment of history and geography. Willinsky examines Hegelian notions of history as Progress and why Hegel saw the West as the ultimate manifestation of this process. The author then takes William McNeill's The Rise of the West to task, which he sees as the apex of Western triumphalism. Even McNeill's 1991 preface, where he acknowledges severe problems with the book, is not sufficient in Willinsky's view since it continues to pledge "allegiance to the best Western conceptions of the historian's profession." (126) What a Western historian should do instead is never answered and indeed Willinsky seems to doubt the value of any grand narrative of humanity. Willinsky examines three contemporary world history textbooks and concludes that, while they explicitly reject Eurocentrism and treat historical narratives as interpretations, they unacceptably portray imperial legacies, such as racism, as existing only in the past and continue to divide the world by difference. Geography also serves to divide the world, such as positing a physical difference between Europe and Asia, connecting environment to intrinsic cultural traits, and separating the exotic Other from normative civilization (Willinsky particularly criticizes National Geographic in this respect). (148)

     Mainstream biologists have abandoned scientific racism and even the concept of race has been discredited as having no scientific footing. However, Willinsky finds several reasons why educators should still discuss race in the biology classroom. He notes that biology textbooks did not fully eliminate faulty racial distinctions until the mid 1980's, leaving many lay people and scholars with an unwanted intellectual legacy. (170) Even more alarming, textbooks have tended to eliminate race from the discussion, leaving students with a nebulous understanding of race obtained from their environment without giving them the historical and scientific context that were critical in creating contemporary notions of the topic. As the author notes "science continues to have something to say about race...even if it would be difficult to say precisely what that something is." (183)

     Willinsky's view of language is somewhat unclear. The only solid argument is for ESL instructors and other linguistic educators to incorporate a historical understanding of the uses of English as both a tool of empowerment and as a weapon of oppression. He recognizes the need for a common language in multi-linguistic states, such as Nigeria or India, but seems uncomfortable with this role being taken by English due to its historical (and perhaps present) connection with imperialism and oppression. (197) In the literary realm, he derides attempts to identify "correct" forms of English (such as that done by the Oxford English Dictionary), but connects this to imperialism with inadequate attention to class. (200) Other "classics" of literature are also noted for their connection to imperialism. Willinsky focuses on Northrup Frye's 1963 book The Educated Imagination, a book that argues for the value of literature. Here, Willinsky sees several examples of imperial ideology, such as the dichotomy between civilized and primitive, the imagining of South Seas islands as clean slates untouched by "advanced" human society, a view of the Orient as irrational, and a faith in literature as a civilizing force. (238)

     Overall, this text serves as a concise overview of the imperial legacy in the contemporary classroom. The book's strength lies in its message that educators ignore the role of history in the development of the academic world at the peril of their students. As Willinsky eloquently argues, it is not enough to merely redact those elements we now find "offensive" in our post-colonial world, such as scientific racism. The tentacles of imperialism simply reach too deep in Western intellectualism for this to be possible. Not only that, but simple omission limits the ability of students to recognize and critically examine how contemporary ideologies, which may on their surface appear self-evident, are actually highly contingent on the past. For secondary teachers, the historical summaries of the first three chapters give a brief background to the development of intellectual imperialism and for those wanting to know more, the excellent bibliography provides information on several important books in the field. Willinsky provides a great deal of information on contemporary issues found in high school texts and curricula. The book even contains some concrete suggestions for lesson plans and discussion strategies that could be useful in the classroom.

     However, for scholars of imperial education, this book offers little surprising or new. There is no new scholarship in the historical chapters; the information is all drawn from secondary works. Because it is primarily concerned with current teaching practices, it is not particularly useful as a summary of imperial educational policies at the undergraduate level. The book also suffers from a lack of focus. In particular, the chapters concerning language and literature seem disconnected from the rest of the text, with the section on literature taking on a somewhat postmodernist approach that diverges from the tone of the rest of the book. As with many works of this sort, Willinsky seems uneasy about group identity, which is portrayed largely in a positive light when discussing non-Western peoples but is somewhat less certain when it comes to ideas of European or Western identity. For instance, difference based on biology is rejected, but identity based on linguistic and cultural heritage, even when that heritage must be learned late in life, is celebrated. Perhaps Willinsky's view on this topic is best described by a quote he includes from Said that difference should not be denied but challenges "the notion that difference implies hostility." (248)


Aaron Whelchel
Washington State University


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use