Summary of Chapter 10: Out of the Past
Willinsky’s closing chapter is a reminder of why we need to look critically at the past and considers how this can have a positive influence on the present and future. The discussion is posed as a direct response to a statement from George Helper, one of the students interviewed: “Let’s just forget what’s happened in the past... and live the rest of our lives without racism” (p. 243-4). Willinsky disagrees with this student and explains why by exploring the ways in which the history we have inherited has shaped our worldview and the view that we have of ourselves. He goes on to discuss how we can use this understanding of the past to move forward.
Willinsky wants to challenge the view that it would be better to “step away from a troubled past and start afresh” (p. 244). He does not see this as a viable option for moving forward due to the direct relationship between the past that we have inherited and the current worldview. This connection means that trying to move forward without considering the past will result in the continuation of the imperial legacy. He claims that it is not enough to simply state what has happened. It needs to be criticised and made explicit how this history has influenced the present in order to know how to truly start afresh.
P. 245 “The idea of returning with a critical eye to the history that we have inherited is not only about what has gone missing in the story of the past, but also about a history that has remained all too present as a force in our lives; which is to say that more or better history teaching, including the history of imperialism, does not in itself point the way forward”
Willinsky feels that students need to gain an understanding of how imperialists divided people to establish colonies, in what could be considered to be an arbitrary manner. These divisions became universals of nature and how we still view our differences today. Without understanding where the divisions came from, you cannot appreciate their significance, or insignificance.
P. 246 “the historical distinctions that the imperial powers used to establish colonies, divide races, and distinguish cultures are transformed into universals of nature. These universals then become what people and governments do indeed learn from history”
Willinsky does not argue that it is unnatural for humans to make such divisions. He wants students to understand that the creation of these divisions have played a part in contemporary issues, such as racism.
P. 247 “well, the human perception of difference per se is natural enough... the specific differences that we learn to attend to with acuity – such as those grouped under the heading “race” - and the extremely consequential burden of meaning that we learn to assign to those differences are the result of a historical process that each of us is educated within.”
As well as critically looking at what is being taught, it is also important to look at what has been missed out. This is because the exclusions were deliberate and the absence of information influences students’ outlook as much as the information that has been presented to them. Not only do the omissions impact of the view of the world, they can also deprive students of their personal “historical identity” (p. 250) due to lack of awareness of the activity of their ancestors.
P. 250 “it also needs to be made apparent to students that such exclusion is not simply an oversight but a feature of how disciplines... have gone about dividing the world since the age of empire.”
Willinsky sees imperialism of one of many elements that trouble current educational practices and hopes that by addressing the issue of imperialism in education, the process of breaking down imperial legacy will be speeded up. He offers a structural approach to dealing with imperialism that can be adapted for use across a range of disciplines (p. 256).
P.250 “I am pursuing the history that continues to trouble aspects of current educational practices. Imperialism is but one trace element within this process... turning our attention to these educational traces of imperialism might well speed up and direct the gradual breakdown of this legacy that reflects centuries of intellectual labour.”
The aim of being critical of imperialism, in Willinsky’s view, is to grant students their right of knowing the origins of the material that is being used to educate them. The inquiry is not being justified as a means to tackle racism, as there is no guarantee that this can be achieved in this way.
P.251 “given that this study of imperialism can hold no guarantee for decreasing racism, this inquiry finds its educational warrant in students’ right to know where the material they study comes from and what it would make of them”
Willinsky observes that schools have the tendency to ignore the past, especially when the details of history are inconvenient to teach. He uses the example of American schools not wanting to reveal how closely linked rationale and ideas that existed in the upkeep of slavery are to how the world is divided today. Willinsky asks why schools are not able to the express pride for the imperial roots of education rather than be apologetic about it.
P. 254 “George Helper’s recommendation to his classmates to forget the past is exactly what schools have often done and done very well, in the face of controversy”
P. 257 “Imperialism seems a topic all the more wanting in relevance when thinking about American schools, until one makes vivid the colonial entanglement of conquest and slavery, and all that America did to construct an educated rationale for both. We need to help students appreciate how the ideas that took in that context could still inform that way the world is divided”
P. 257 “asking the school to turn a self-critical eye towards its own practices and history, to how it has both participated in and managed to obscure the privileging of the West is to ask the school for a level of educational courage that exceeds the level required to teach about safe sex and drugs.... Why not do it with pride rather than apology?”
In summary, Willinsky ends his book by explaining why it is necessary to look to the past in order to move forward. He acknowledges that schools do ignore the details of education’s imperial past. He explains how the past has created our current divisions and has deprived children of their historical identity. He argues that by criticising the past we are able to contribute to the dismantlement of imperial legacy and give students their right of knowing what their education is based on.