History Matters. On John Willinsky's Learning to Divide the World - by Shaula Villadoniga

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Shaula Villadoniga has written a piece about this book.

From Nathaniel - I recommend that, before we place it on dtmh.ucl.ac.uk, we harness its ability to spark and enrich conversation among the participants in the #EducationalRepair Reading Group.

So, please see the article below.

**History Matters. On John Willinsky's Learning to Divide the World**

What do we make of a world in which new generations are taught to condemn and despise racism, but are offered little or no information on how the very idea of the existence of different human “races” did actually come about? How does an educator explain the gap between a school that celebrates diversity and educates against racism, and a world pervaded with ethnic conflicts and periodic episodes of outright racial discrimination?

As John Willinsky suggests in his volume Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End, telling students that prejudices arising from human differences “are the product of sheer ignorance” might not be nearly enough. As a matter of fact, such a response proves itself to be tautological. By dismissing the issue as the product of ignorance, the question on how did “race” and racism came into being in the history of humanity remains unanswered, therefore keeping students in a state of ignorance with regards to it. 

Now, as Mr. Willinksy clearly suggests, approaching the theme of the history of “race” in a class would be anything but easy. The first objection that could be raised is that since we all agree that “race” is a social construct, what would the use of making it a relevant topic in education be? Wouldn’t it suffice to focus on the detrimental effects, both for the individual and for society as a whole, of discrimination, stereotypes and prejudices? Clearly, Mr. Willinksy does not think so, and neither do I. Such appeal to ethos would definitely be much more effective if combined with an appeal to logos. Whereas students will certainly benefit from an education on the ethics of non-discrimination, showing them how the concept of “race” totally lacks evidence, and the way it was constructed, would reinforce the message significantly. By showing the artificiality of certain categories, studies on the history of the invention of “race” can play a major role in the better world we are trying to build. Mr. Willinksy hits the nail in the head when he states that “I want to show how science education has tended to step around its contribution to the construction of race, leaving the young to find themselves at the mercy of this powerful concept with little idea of how it has taken on such importance”.

One of my favorite passages in the book concerns a quotation from a text book used in grade II in British Columbia, whose author states that “the concept of race has become increasingly blurred in the last few thousands of years”. As Mr. Willinksy remarks, “the concept of race has only gained in precision through scientific usage, beginning a little more than two centuries ago”. In other words, by misusing the expression concept of race, students receive quite a blurred message themselves, which is that “race” is a millenary concept, instead of a nineteenth-century product, which roots are to be found in the other side of that coin called Enlightenment and in imperialism.

Those were the times in which pseudo-sciences such as phrenology were been debated seriously, in which the precursors of anthropology were coming up with countless classifications of human “races”. The times in which the supporters of the theory of polygenesis argued that humankind had many origins and that, consequently, human “races” were to be interpreted as different species. The times in which you could even come across the theories of Dr. Benjamin Rush, in the United States, who claimed that black skin was actually an illness, a form of leprosy; the times in which a certificate of “whiteness” could be purchased in Latin America for those “mixed-blood” people whose skin was light enough, and whose purse was full enough, to pay for them. Would students benefit from that knowledge today? I think they would, for it would unveil the mechanism of construction of such concept.

The best words I can think of on the topic come from an 1854 speech, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered”, by the prominent African-American scholar and past slave Frederick Douglass: “Indeed, ninety-nine out of every hundred of the advocates of a diverse origin of the human family in this country, are among those who hold it to be the privilege of the Anglo-Saxon to enslave and oppress the African (...) the whole argument in defense of slavery, becomes utterly worthless the moment the African is proved to be equally a man with the Anglo-Saxon. By making the enslaved a character fit only for slavery, they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a freeman. A wholesale method of accomplishing this result, is to overthrow the instinctive consciousness of the common brotherhood of man.”