Over the past three months, I have been part of a reading group for Reparative Futures. We have covered a number of topics from public history to memory to shame. In this short blog, I want to explore the work of Charles W. Mills who introduced the concept of ‘white ignorance’. In particular, I want to explore the consequences of ‘white ignorance’ for reparative futures and what work it might point towards going forward.
What are reparative futures?
To move towards a more just future, one in which the harms of the past and present are no longer replicated but repaired, it is necessary to understand what, why and how these past injustices occurred.
‘The idea of reparative futures signals a commitment to identify and recognise the injustices visited on, and experienced by, individuals and communities in the past. It understands that these past injustices, even when they appear to be distant in time or ‘over’, will continue to endure in people’s lives in material and affective ways unless, and until, they are consciously and carefully addressed.’
(Sriprakash et al. 2020: 2)
In the process of identifying and recognising injustices of the past, it becomes important to ask why these things were not commonly known before. And why, in some cases, there continues to be a resistance to the knowing of certain pasts when they do come to light.
Ignorance-as-resistance poses a fundamental challenge to those wishing to create reparative futures. Instead of being passive, that which can be overcome when taught, shown evidence, or reasoned with, ignorance fights back. Following the argument of Charles Mills, ignorance is structural, a way in which the dominant system, the system of white supremacy, maintains itself, and thus must be engaged with and processed in order to repair injustices of the past and present. It presents an active block to that work of repair. Ignorance-as-resistance operates through many systems that uphold the current oppressive paradigm – education is one of the key ways in which ignorance resists. To unpack this a little, let’s turn to Mill’s understanding of white ignorance.
Understanding white ignorance
It’s a big subject. How much time do you have?
It’s not enough.
Ignorance is usually thought of as the passive obverse to knowledge, the darkness retreating before the spread of Enlightenment.
Imagine an ignorance that resists.
Imagine an ignorance that fights back.
Imagine an ignorance militant, aggressive, not to be intimidated, an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go quietly – not at all confined to the illiterate and uneducated but propagated at the highest level of the land, indeed presenting itself unblushingly as knowledge’
(Mills, 2007: 19)
To create an ‘ignorance that resists’, work has to be done by the society that operates through oppression and domination. These oppressive societies rarely acknowledge themselves as oppressive. They present themselves as ‘basically just and fair, or at least the best of all possible worlds’ (Alcoff, 2007: PAGE). They do this through the stories they tell about themselves; the histories they teach in both formal and informal education settings. However, it is likely that there will be daily evidence of oppression and domination. For the society to be maintained in its oppressive form, this evidence must be regularly dismissed. This is the work of white ignorance, or ignorance at the structural level. It is a series of ways of thinking about the world that make possible the perpetuation of systems of oppression.
In the case of “white ignorance”, what occurs is the erasure of harm conducted in the pursuance of white supremacy. This is achieved through the management of memory; through the gatekeeping of testimonies which ‘count’ towards the historical record and those which were deemed untrustworthy; and through a collective untelling of certain pasts which the system of domination would rather have forgotten. All this requires ways of thinking that structure in ignorance.
It is not just the ‘not knowing’ as that could be remedied by sharing more facts, more evidence of different kinds. It is a set of mechanisms that enables us not to know. Which guard what is not known and fight against its becoming known. For example, what is included in the curriculum is a key question here, but so too is the way we are taught to think, to question, to assume. When alternative pasts are uncovered and shared, they are met with defensiveness, with threat, with outrage, with all the ways in which ignorance is militant – because these alternative pasts are a threat in some way to the dominant system.
The senior historian who worked with the National Trust, Professor Corinne Fowler, recently wrote that she has been ‘unfairly targeted’ by a ‘political agenda’ fighting over how colonialism is studied. And why is this fight underway? I would argue, as Mills does, that those who benefit most from the system of white supremacy need to perpetuate white ignorance in order to maintain it – to deny that reparations are due and that steps towards justice must be taken, better to criticize the historians and the way history work is being done, for they cannot criticize the facts themselves.And always, the system of white supremacy seeks to defend and maintain itself and does so through attacks on, violence to and oppression of Black and brown people.
What can be done?
If sharing more / other / new historical facts will not deter the march of white ignorance, what then can be done both to address it, dismantle it and deal with the backlash (or whitelash as it has come to be called) along the way? Linda Alcoff asks the important question to consider: ‘If members of dominant groups are responsible for essentially duping themselves about the true nature of their social world, then are there resources in their own experiences from which to draw out the truth?’ (Alcoff, 2007: 50). How, in other words, do we overcome the desire not to know which is structurally created and reinforced, in order to move towards reparative futures? And what role might education play to both unlearn and create new ways of knowing?
I do not make claims to have the answer to this question but I think it may be generative to explore the following as part of the Reparative Futures project:
To uncover, identify and recognise injustices of the past and how they play out in the present.
To notice the resistance to these histories and observe the emotions that are at play: denial, defensiveness, shame.
To find a way to process these emotions so that they might transform, in a way to release the grip of white ignorance so that acknowledgement of oppression can occur.
To nurture the demands for repair amongst those who do see the need for it, who can see through the structural ignorance in operation.
To build organisation to add power to those demands, so that they might come to pass sooner than the emotional processing of those who feel they have most to lose by the dismantling of the system of white supremacy.
Alcoff, L., (2007) Epistemologies of Ignorance: three types in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, State University of New York Press, New York.
Huxtable, S., Fowler, C., Kefalas, C. and Slocombe, E., (2020) Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery. The National Trust, Wiltshire.
Mills, C.W., (2007) White Ignorance in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, State University of New York Press, New York.
Sriprakash, A., Nally, D., Myers, K., and Ramos-Pinto, P. 2020. Learning with the Past: Racism, Education and Reparative Futures. Paper commissioned for the UNESCO Futures of Education report (forthcoming, 2021).
Katherine Wall is a PhD student at the University of Bristol exploring the relationship between land and racial justice in England. She is also a social movement facilitator with Resist+Renew and Organising for Change.
Suzanne van Even and Zibah A. Nwako discuss the first session in our Decolonising Social Research Series: Decolonising Theory.
On Thursday 19 November 2020, the SWDTP’s ‘Decolonising Social Research’ series launched with a provocative seminar on Decolonising Theory with speakers Foluke Adebisi (Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol), Mark Jackson (Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Geographies, University of Bristol) and Arathi Sriprakash (Professor of Education, University of Bristol).
This seminar series came at an opportune time. As doctoral researchers in the Social Sciences ourselves, we find it very important to engage with decolonial critiques and the decolonisation literature more generally. It is of particular importance in the context of co-creation of knowledge whereby social researchers, like us, work closely with participants, community stakeholders and policymakers. For us both, our research seeks change and impact – not just to engage in knowledge translation, but also with the aim of emancipating and empowering knowledge producers and knowledge receivers, respectively.
Foluke’s presentation, Rhodes Must Fall, or Rhodes Must Read More Fanon? (title inspired by a tweet by @fanoniscanon), considered what we mean when we talk about decolonising theory. Are we trying to unsettle the concepts that are the foundational presumptions of our discipline(s) or are we leaving those as they are? Do we add in other concepts which will never reach the eminence of the foundational concepts that we hold dear?
Foluke reflected on how diversifying literature relates to decolonial thought. She argued that there is a difference between including ‘diverse literatures’ (in our research) and decolonial thought. She posited that a major distinction between decolonial thought and diversity is that the latter makes no distinction between epistemic and embodied difference.
Using a table as a metaphor (the table representing colonised space), Foluke briefly discussed the four main schools of decolonial thought:
Settler states (Americas, Australasia, South Africa) – part of the table does not belong to you, can you give it back to us?
Post-colonial states (Africa and Asia) – well, that’s a nice table, can we join you there?
Latin American critical school (Latin America and Caribbean) – is that really a table? What is it meant for? Should we destroy it and think of a table in a different way?
Colonising states – this category of thought is often not mentioned, because some argue that you cannot decolonise empire (Tundama, 2016).
Finally, Foluke questioned what decolonial research can possibly do? Referring to Escobar (2018), hooks (1991), and Mignolo (2016), she contemplated whether decolonising theory can be liberatory.
Mark’s presentation on Decolonizing Theory: Perspectives from Geographies focused on how to reverse the centre-periphery relationship. He questioned whether the vocabularies, categories of thought, and concepts employed by normative social science are suitable and effective means for making sense in, or of, non-Western worlds?
Although 80% of the world is located outside of Europe, European thought (processes) define our view of the world. Yet, non-Western worlds do not use European concepts such as ‘gender’ and colonised notions of ‘nations’. Mark suggested that decolonial critique attempts to unsettle this – by turning Eurocentric assumptions and concepts on their heads.
As researchers, we take people’s lived experiences and transpose them through pre-conceived categories, thereby assimilating them into terms that can then be put to work. We argue that as a result of this, knowledge is formed. Mark postulated that this process of identification, extraction, re-purposing and circulation is a form of commodification.
Mark posited further that there are four main implications for decolonising theory:
Need to enable theorising from the outside.
Give up on the idea of a universal standard and instead embrace ‘pluriversality’ of epistemologies and ontologies (Escobar, 2018).
Regard the decolonial as an option (Mignolo, 2011; Murrey, 2019; Nigam, 2020). It is not a particularly privileged mode of deriving theory but provides a range of possible strategies (Nigam, 2020) that might allow for a necessary preliminary step to reconstitution.
Theorising well is fundamentally about fostering caring. In order to know, you need to care (Dalmiya, 2016).
In her presentation titled Decolonising Theory: The erasures of racism in education and international development, Arathi asserted that we need to ask questions of the theories that we use. Moreover, she warned us against superficially adopting the term ‘decolonisation’ as it has become a bit of a buzz word. The aim of decolonisation is to unsettle power relations, in real and material ways. Decolonisation should bring about the repatriation of indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things that we want to do to improve our societies (Tuck and Yang, 2012). Using decolonisation as a metaphor, keeps colonial structures in place.
Arathi argued that it is important to decolonise theory because it doesn’t just operate at an abstract level. Instead, theory emerges from lived experiences that shape how we act and intervene in the world in profound and concrete ways. Theories of development, and specifically theories of modernisation, have worked to divide the world into categories such as ‘developed’, ‘developing’, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. This entrenches the idea that people and places need to ‘catch up’, as if they were developmentally backwards. This type of theorising that persists today is based on a deficit model, positioning the problem of poverty with racialised and colonised people and their practices. In doing so, it secures primarily European and Anglo-American epistemologies, industries and interventions as valid and good, forming the material effects of epistemic injustice. In education, this colonial way of thinking makes educational inequality irrelevant whilst it is, in fact, profoundly relevant for understanding educational injustices (e.g. Mills, 2007, ‘epistemologies of white ignorance’).
Arathi ended her presentation with a reading of Abhay Xaxa’s (2011) powerful poem “I am not your data”, reflecting Tuhawai Smith’s (2012) words that “’research’ is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” (pp. 1).
The presentations resulted in thought-provoking discussions, indicating from this first seminar that there are still a lot of questions to be answered. For example, can we decolonise theory without de-colonising theory? Foluke posited that even after years of decolonising theory – colonial theory is still dominant. When we think about neo-liberal constructions, we are more likely to find validation for decolonising theory than using theory that decolonises. The danger is that we take the path of least resistance. So, it is always important to point out that this is not the destination, this is not where we are headed. Even if we are trying to be more inclusive in our decolonising of theory, we are not just doing that because it is a good thing to do. We are doing it because it brings about a new world. And as social researchers, this is the change and the impact that we seek to achieve through decolonising theory!
Suzanne van Even is a PhD student at UWE in Bristol. Her research explores how people of African Caribbean and African ancestry cope with mood disorders associated with having an autoimmune rheumatic disease. Suzanne originally trained as a solicitor in the Netherlands before working as a fundraiser for arts charities in both the Netherlands and the UK. She is now retraining as a psychologist. Suzanne’s research interests include the mental health and wellbeing of African and African Caribbean men and women, community-based research and creative research methods. Twitter: @SvanEven77
Zibah A. Nwako completed her PhD at the School of Education, University of Bristol. Her thesis is titled ‘In Our Own Voices: A Critical Participatory Study of the Wellbeing of Female Undergraduate Students in Nigeria’ and she researched this topic using a postcolonial feminist lens. Zibah is a speaker, trainer and consultant on women’s personal development and gender justice. Her research interests include the personal welfare and wellbeing of girls in Africa, non-formal education and informal learning, qualitative research methodologies and creative methods. Visit her website and blog here: www.zibahnwako.com
Mills, C. (2007). White ignorance. Race and epistemologies of ignorance, 247, (Sullivan, S. & Tuana, N., Eds) pp. 26-31. State University of New York Press.
Murrey, A. (2019). ‘When spider webs unit they can tie up a lion’. Anti-racism, decolonial options and theories from the South. In: Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Daley, P., Eds).
Nigam, A. (2020). Decolonizing Theory, Thinking Across Traditions. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd.
Tuck, E. and Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1 (1), pp. 1-40.
A year ago, free from the knowledge of what 2020 would have in store for us all, we invited people to join us in the idea of creating a collective place to discuss critical theories.
Inspired in part by the activities of the Standing Seminar in Critical Theory based at Bath University, we were interested in establishing a collaborative space in which to interact with different perspectives of critical theories, to build community around similar interests, and to foster creativity. Also, we were happy to have an excuse to see each other beyond our research interests, something perhaps we value even more at present. As Antonia Darder reminds us, there is an “importance of building communities of individuals who share a collective vision and recognize the importance of critical relationships of solidarity. They are comrades, compañeros and compañeras who share a revolutionary love for one another as brothers and sisters in struggle” (2017, p.64).
This is key since from different approaches, we are working within education which can be a vehicle to change ourselves and inevitably the relationships we build within the world. We hoped that in creating a space built on the recognition of others with similar dreams and hopes, we could learn from each other and progress further than if alone. We sought to draw on the rich and diverse interests and knowledge of those in our learning community. This is particularly important within the multidisciplinary department within which we are based, the University of Bristol’s School of Education, but also because we hoped to reach out beyond its boundaries.
Central to our idea was to go beyond those critical thinkers typically associated within European Critical Theory. We sought thinkers from different perspectives, locations, and where possible, those who were still contributing to critical theoretical approaches.
With this in mind, we initiated this collaborative process by facilitating the group to contribute names of authors or theories which we might be able to explore further:
Our first meeting was a success, success measured in our own way: we were not alone. Students and academics from across the university and beyond gathered to create something. Through a lluvia de ideas (rain of ideas) we came out with some topics to explore: Critical Race Theory, Feminist Critical Theories, Critical Theories in Education, Decoloniality, and Eco-feminist theory.
We named our group Critical Ideas from the Periphery. Why this name? Firstly, we thought that our group would not simply look to gather theories and collect schools of thought, but rather experiences and concepts formulated in our conversations and distilled in the act of co-creation. Moreover, many of the scholars introduced in our initial scoping task and some others who we will go onto explore in the next term, are not the common ones related to critical theory.
Equally, the name is aspirational, and one which we hope challenges us to seek out new and different understanding of the areas we cover. Just as significantly, many of us, whilst engaging with critical theories in our various research approaches, do not consider ourselves within one school of thought.
Lastly, the word periphery gives us perspective to look from far away and then to go closer and explore further. Moreover, we would like to use the periphery also as a position, in the same way bell hooks uses the idea of margin: ‘place of radical openness is a margin—a profound edge.’ (1989, p.36) where we can create and resist confinement.
A Reflection on the Year
Space here does not allow for us to sufficiently convey the richness of the contributions from those who led on each of the sessions. However, there are some of things we learnt that we would like to share.
In our first session, we read Restoring our Humanity. The Dialectics of Revolutionary Praxis by Antonia Darder. We shared questions and thoughts around what is the role of knowledge for revolutionary praxis? How can we introduce these critical ideas of community, collective love and educational praxis in our lives as researchers, teachers, family members?
In the second session, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics by Kimberle Crenshaw, we reflected on intersectionality not just as a lens, but as a way of acting. We were challenged: ‘How do we actually use it in our praxis?’ We also reflected on the need to create alliances of solidarity with those under different conditions of oppression. Even though this could mean tensions and sacrifices, it is from there where we transform.
The third session was on feminism, and we moved to the south of the globe. We read A Manifesto in Four Themes by Rita Segato. In it, Segato invited us to understand patriarchy as a model of exploitation of territories and bodies that have been reproduced through other kinds of oppression. As she says “[e]conomic, political, colonial, and racial forms of supremacy are thus effectively replicas of the patriarchal order” (p.199). Under this order, women’s bodies are seen as inferior to those at the top of the hierarchy, men, or as she calls it, The Masculine Mandate. This mandate has trained men to be loyal to the dynamics of that group, which also oppresses them. In this session, we also reflected on how patriarchy as a form of domination is even replicated through the exploitation of our natural resources, where the non-human is seen as having a lower place in the hierarchical chain.
How to face this masculine mandate? Politicising the private space, dismantling binarism, and creating bonds between us is one of the ways of facing many forms of hierarchisation and exploitation. Bonds that diverge from neoliberal and capitalist ideas, bonds that are embedded within a “communal rootedness.”
Our fourth session, coming just days after the UK went into lockdown, saw us meet online for the first time. It was the beginning of a time of many uncertainties and a welcome opportunity to meet with others and share ideas, albeit remotely. Not only because of the pandemic, but because of different struggles and injustices that were starting to gain more attention, including in the academic world.
For this session, we read The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century by Ramón Grosfoguel. The reading was especially timely as it problematised how non-western perspectives provide new opportunities, spaces, and hopes for the creation of knowledge. Epistemic diversity offers the opportunity to understand the world in a richer way overcoming the single (male-western) perspective that favours one side of history.
During the fifth session, we read Virus: all that is solid melts into air. In the article Boaventura de Sousa Santos covers a lot of ground in the context of the onset of the pandemic and the implications for our societies. de Sousa Santos outlines a state of permanent crisis for the world created under neoliberal capitalism. In this state, a sense of security is generated for the classes able to benefit from social provisions such as healthcare, whilst those denied it are victimised. For de Sousa Santos the pandemic crisis has simultaneously revealed the failure of such a system whilst interrupting the notion of security and ‘common sense’ of the minority who benefited from it. Such an event, he asserts, provides the opportunity for a ‘common awareness of planetary, democratic-like communion’, even in the very act of our enforced solitude.
Centrally de Sousa Santos points to the window which the COVID pandemic and resulting lockdowns have revealed into ‘alternative mode(s) of life’. A window often hidden to us through entrenched political and economic systems. In concluding, he points to the ‘shadows that visibility creates’ within a sociology of absences. Poignantly, he invokes the case of ‘migrants and refugees’, people on the Greek island of Lesvos residing in ‘camps’ (detention centres) such as Moria. These places, where people are more vulnerable to the Coronavirus and other diseases are within Europe, and yet are perhaps more invisible than ever before. Thus, it is not a coincidence that de Sousa Santos chose Marx’s phrase “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (p. 38) for the title of his article.
The sixth session approached the area of Eco-feminism, a theory significantly tied to the activist experiences of its most significant contributors as well as to movements such as the Chipko in India or the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. We discussed two distinct, though interrelated, approaches to eco-feminism: essentialist or radical and Marxist or existentialist. Drawing on contributions from some of the most prominent contributors such as Vandana Shiva, Mary Meller, Maria Mies and others, we focused on the work of Ariel Salleh. Reading Salleh’s 2008 ‘Ecofeminism as Sociology’, we delved into their discussion on the place of reproductive labour and its knowledges in the formation of an ‘ecologically literate sociology’.
Our central focus over the coming year will be in anticipation of the centenary of the Brazilian Educator and critical activist Paulo Freire. As well as restarting our readings, we are looking forward to hosting a series of activities, events and opportunities for collective thinking under the name #Freire100. This is also the name Education International is giving to the celebration. By doing this we would like to not only disseminate Paulo Freire’s contributions to the philosophy of education but also discuss how his work has influenced our own as students, teachers, researchers, and as humans in the world. We seek to question how his ideas are relevant as we all venture into the post-pandemic future. In doing so, having a place to talk about his ideas on autonomy, liberation, humanity, hope, community, and so many others, is a good excuse to imagine collectively how best to put these ideas into practice. We aim to create ethical and democratic relationships with others, at the school, university, nature, and beyond following Freire’s idea that “the pursuit of full humanity, cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity” (Freire, 1970/2006, p.85).
Excitingly, the group continues to grow, as do the number of those who wish to bring something to share. If you would like to lead an activity with the group around any of the subjects we have discussed or simply wish to connect, do get in touch.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1, 139-167.
Darder, A., (2017). Reinventing Paulo Freire: A pedagogy of Love, Westview Press
Freire, P. (1970/2006). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum.
Grosfoguel, R. (2013). The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, 11(1), 73-90.
hooks, bell. (1989). Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness. Framework, The Journal of Cinema and Media, 36, 15–23.
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1847/1977). The Communist Manifesto. In K. Marx, & F. Engels, Selected Works in One Volume, Lawrence and Wishart.
Salleh, A. (2003). Ecofeminism as Sociology, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 14(1), 61-74.
Segato, R. (2018). A manifesto in four themes, Critical Times, 1(1), 198–211.
Not even in our worst nightmares. As usual in the Southern region of Latin America, Chilean teachers, students and their families began the academic year on March 4. This fell just a day after the first COVID-19 case in the country was reported. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak classes in Chile were suspended on March 16. What means attend to school in Chile? The educative context is marked by the neoliberal politics. They have gradually dismantled the public education system (Bellei, 2018; Ruiz, 2012) and have installed a network of financing through demand (Verger, Moschetti, & Fontdevila, 2017) and a voucher system as modes for financing public schools (Murnane, Waldman, John, Bos, & Vegas, 2017). Moreover, the neoliberal project has installed a culture of New Public Management (Falabella, 2014), NPM, and has configured and established norms oriented around metrics of performance and results. The setting has been invaded by discourses which privilege numbers and mechanical notions of learning (Flórez Petour, 2014). The grading system used in the country, framed in a high-stakes system, promotes competition and rivalry (Percerisa and Falabella, 2017). The literature in the country evidences a strong connection between students’ socio-economic background and their school achievement (García and Paredes, 2010), and the resultant inequality is linked to the market-oriented transformation of the system (Torché, 2005). Piecemeal reforms have generally only exacerbated inconsistencies and the sense of outright chaos, a historical top-down approach in which a highly centralised policy fails to take account of local contexts and the use of policies based on foreign models which are uncritically applied to Chile without due note of its specificities (Flórez Petour, 2014).
After COVID-19 broke out, students and teachers had only eight days of face to face classes. Since that day until now, education has moved entirely online; tensioning the reasoning of monitoring and accountability associated to NPM. Likewise, in many other cases, Chilean teachers were not trained for that type of teaching practice; they did not receive any technological, pedagogical, or logistical support. A recent OPECH report (Chilean Observatory for Educational Policies, September 2020), stated that this unprecedented lockdown situation has deeply impacted upon learning, demanding everyone involved to adapt to new conditions that represented challenges in various aspects (OPECH, 2020). It has accelerated the sense of vulnerability of the current times, as Bauman (2000) denounces, intensifying the work and deepening the precarious conditions of overwhelmed school teachers (Sánchez Cerón, 2018). We find it necessary to emphasise here, that during March prior to the pandemic the country was already barely operating with any sense of ‘normality’ after the national uprising began in October 2019. That academic year was already challenging to finish. For the educational landscape, the uprising brought one significant change: the end of the PSU, the competitive test used to offer university places in the country. It had been identified as a significant element in the (re)production of acute social and knowledge inequalities in education. During January 2020, students protested fiercely during the administration of the PSU, demonstrating against the elitism of the test and thus access to Higher Education, as it foments segregation and inequality. The test was boycotted in masse with the slogan ‘No more PSU’ used widely. This demonstration culminated with the elimination of it and the creation of a ‘Transitory Admission Test’ that will be used for the first time this year during November if health conditions permit.
Students protesting against the University entrance test, January 2020.
Chile also presents damning data in the OCDE reports, as a member of this organisation. Particularly for upper secondary level education, where both authors had taught for several years before embarking upon our PhDs. The number of students per teacher at the secondary level is one of the largest among OECD countries (usually there are 45 students in a classroom with just one teacher!), and conversely the annual expenditure per secondary level students is one of the lowest (OECD, 2016). In that reality, Chilean teachers give their lessons and assess learning processes. In that reality, students are supposed to learn. Furthermore, teachers are expected to teach a large number of hours (1,064 hours in Chile, within an average of 655 working hours, in OECD countries), whilst receiving among the lowest salaries in the OECD countries. In these conditions, the COVID-19 outbreak hit the already crisis-ridden Chilean classrooms.
A typical secondary school group, these are some of the 45 students that Tamara was in charge of as teacher and tutor before coming to the UK to start her PhD.
II. The OPECH report and our experience
The OPECH report identifies three main issues affecting learning during lockdown. The COVID outbreak just makes worse a situation that was already complicated enough. Firstly, there is a clear issue of work overload. Teachers are spending more time working during the lockdown, doing even more than the usual. Consequently, many are declaring themselves ‘tired’ or ‘very tired’ under the current conditions. These conditions have clearly made it very difficult to harmonise work and family life. In spite of these considerable obstacles, teachers have shown a commendable level of commitment towards their students’ learning continuity. During these months, we have known about former colleagues stressed, working all day barely attending to their children and bursting into tears and breaking down. The increased time in front of the computer makes it difficult for them, for example, to engage with their children’s learning or even undertake simple daily tasks like cooking.
Secondly, the report highlights socio-emotional aspects by stating teachers’ worries about the health and emotional condition of their families and also the high reported levels of stress. A number of teachers also exhibited high levels of burnout. Inevitably, this has tended to be higher among teachers with parental responsibilities. In this regard, teachers also face significant worries about their students’ mental, economic and social wellbeing during the COVID outbreak. The demands of this seemingly ‘new world’ make teachers’ duties recording classes, doing online courses, sending material, homework and assignments, and assessing their students.
To add further complexity to the panorama, teachers were worried about their students: quarantined families, families who tested positive, death, unemployment and (increased) poverty. Not only students were left sometimes in households with no formal incomes, but also there were threats of not receiving payments for teachers as well, especially within the subsidised system. Following our well-known culture of the neoliberal system, parents would not (and indeed could not) meet the schools’ fees, prompting fears about teachers’ salaries. All this under the logic that ‘if parents don’t pay, we don’t have the money to pay teachers’. One school in San Bernardo, a district in the South of the capital, mostly inhabited by families who belongs to the Chilean lowest quintiles, just cancelled online teaching by adopting the logic: ‘if parents don’t pay, we don’t teach’. In private and subsidised schools, teachers were enlisted to call their students to know about their situation. So, beyond their teaching function, they were expected to remind the parents’ of their ‘debts’ to the school. This action was often carried out using their personal mobile phones, and consequently their own data and allowances. This meant that the schools sidestepped their logistical responsibilities in the same way as when teachers themselves supported all the online teaching/learning process. In this scenario, Teachers’ Unions reject the erratic government policies for returning to face-to-face education; claiming the lack of health equipment and the schools’ infrastructure, where students are crowded together.
Lastly, the situation made the lack of ICT learning and conditions among the educational sector manifest, even considering attempts to educate teachers and students about online learning. In a country with a significant rural population, the lack of internet access has also been problematic. Most of the schools did not supply the requisite technological tools for either teachers or students; a factor for stress and burnout increase and, on the other hand, engagement decrease. The lack of internet connection and technological supplies meant that many teachers had students who never participated in classes and thus were not submitting any type of assignments. Within a high-stakes system, that means that students could end up repeating the academic year. For others, learning to use new platforms, such as Zoom or Classroom implied long hours, a slow process, frustration and adaptation difficulties. One teacher said:
“The main challenges have been in the creation of resources with which to assess students, that allow the collection of full information, by using new platforms, which are engaging, but at the same time facilitate the revision or that give reports of students’ attainment. The lack of time is still a very present problem.”
As has been stated, Chilean teachers have a historical work overload that makes it almost impossible to teach in the right conditions; the lack of time is a transversal theme. During teacher interviews that Tamara conducted online in July, time appears a crucial axis for several issues. Time influences teachers’ decisions about assessment methods. In this line, it was a determinant sphere in the decisions made associated with the use of tests and standardised test formats; a formative assessment that becomes summative. These curricular and assessment dilemmas are an expression of the teachers’ desires, which collide with the demands of the system, the lack of student feedback, the overreliance on grades and numbers, and the lack of reflection on students’ attainment. It generates the conditions for configuring a scenario of teachers’ and students’ reticence to embrace changes. In the meantime, at one moment, the country exhibited some of the worst rate of infection per inhabitants and high fatalities percentage in the capital city (June 2020, OECD). Therefore, the health system collapsed.
Ambulances waited up to 12 hours with COVID-19 patients outside a collapsed hospital in the south of the capital, in the cold winter weather and without any food or drinks.
III. Open analysis
The full analysis of what we have set out cannot yet be satisfactorily concluded. We have been in permanent contact with former teaching colleagues on the ground who are facing this unprecedented situation on a daily basis in the country. They have been doing teaching online for seven months now. The precarious context that Chilean teachers have faced for decades has been exacerbated by the health crisis and the intensified work under emergency conditions. Teachers have reported and felt a lack of support and even absolute abandonment from the educational authorities and employees. The ongoing situation in Chile; in the political sphere, along with the upcoming election for changing the constitution at the end of October, forced by social mobilisations; the ongoing demonstrations which have maintained the momentum from the social uprising; the opposition of the Teachers’ Union to returning to the classroom; configure a scenario which remains open for further reflections. However, we suggest that the historicity of dismantling public institution as part of the neoliberal privatising processes has generated a situation that we, at least, could characterise as incompatible with dealing with a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude. It invites us to think about the challenges of education in aspects such as the curricula of the teacher training; the support that teachers and students require undertaking online teaching and learning. Elements such as the technological imbalance of Internet access within a deeply uneven society; the lack of technical support at the national scale and also the constant tendency toward imposing the Western paradigm with scant regard for the reality and specificities of firstly Chile and secondly the various Chiles, a pluriversality, which have unveiled from the aforementioned might also be reviewed.
A typical cramped Chilean classroom environment.
As many scholars have suggested, the pandemic provides spaces for analysing what is occurring at the interior of the education institution. However, the analysis might surpass the reduced limits of the didactic procedures. The academic and political debates of the last two decades have been dominated by managerial calculations, policymakers and educative actors who have discussed aspects such as, who has to administrate the public system and what are the modes for better assessing students and teachers. The debate has been reduced to the engineering of education. This feature could be associated with the gradual dismantling of public education. It is a process of dismembering it from its material conditions and symbolical values. We must recognise, the precarity of Chileans schools has impelled us to concentrate our analysis in statistical aspects, such as the quantities of students and teachers in a classroom, or learning accountability as a guide for determining the meaning of educative quality. The reflection on the educative purposes and the place of the public education – from a pedagogical perspective, in so far construction of comprehensive subjects – is avoided. The current situation at the Chilean school invites us to think not only about better methods for teaching, rather to steer our thought to aspects related to what we are teaching. As an example, the Ministry of Education of Chile has commanded a curricular reduction to “essential pieces of knowledge”, without questioning the overwhelming objectives of learning, their uncountable learning indicators and the implications of that selection or body of knowledge. A critical analysis might transcend formal aspects, inasmuch as procedures, in order to reflect holistically upon the epistemological aims and limits of education and by extension the meaning and raison d’etre of schools within our societies.
As teachers, we may wonder how ‘social distance’ will work within classrooms with 45 students and a very limited space, where if we have corridors, it is only because of earthquakes…. By now, the re-start of face to face classes seems to be something that may happen in March 2021, as most educational actors refuse to come back to school due to the insecurity of the health situation. It is noteworthy that in the last weeks some students in Year 11 and Year 12 of 4 private schools in the most exclusive areas in the capital, went back to classes in person. It would be interesting to continue analysing the Chilean situation in the upcoming months, especially when in the last weeks all the districts of the capital were declared to be out of local quarantine for the first time in 7 months.
Finally, we must mention here that as a product of the national uprising that started one year ago in the country, on October 25 2020 Chileans voted to have a new Constitution, with an overwhelming 78.27% of the votes. People’s participation in this plebiscite was the highest since the return to democracy in 1990. The new Constitution will replace the one imposed in 1980 during the Pinochet dictatorship. The constitutional convention voted to write the new Constitution will be the first in the world to have gender parity and will be fully elected by popular vote during April 2021. For the educational sector, the new Constitution will support and reformulate the redefinition of the balance between State and the market in guaranteeing quality public education (against the private), freedom and diversity, and therefore, education as a human right. These events open hope for change related to the inequalities of the system. As both authors come from low income backgrounds and also were in the country during the social uprising one year ago, we see these aspects opening multiple possibilities for future analysis.
Massive protests in Chile one year ago, during the social uprising.
Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Bellei, C. (2018). La nueva educación pública. Santiago: CIAE.
Centro de Estudios de MINEDUC. (2018). Estadísticas de la Educación 2017. Publicación diciembre 2018. Santiago.
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Verger, A., Moschetti, M., & Fontdevila, C. (2017). La privatización educativa en América Latina. Una cartografía de políticas tendencias y trayectorias. Barcelona: Internacional de la Educación.
I initially wrote this blog post in late April 2020, in the midst of the UK coronavirus lockdown. I felt uncertain about it at that time, like I did about everything then. But, now in September 2020 as the Network that I describe in the post is beginning (slowly and gently) to start its activities and as the academic year kicks off (hectically and potentially dangerously), it seems a good time to share these thoughts about the difficulties and delights of pausing, staying home and going slow with collaborative, international research. I’ve edited the post slightly to reflect the timeline, but is still largely as written from lockdown:
“We aren’t going away,” said my lovely colleague, Leon Tikly, who leads a network on Transforming Education Systems for Sustainable Development. He described the ways in which he and his colleagues are expanding their foci to include coronavirus and how they are finding new ways to continue their important work. On a Zoom call with other colleagues leading collaborative, international Network Plus projects, researchers described the digital methods they are working to develop and opportunities for online networking they hope to open. On another call with a University research group, colleagues strategized around how to build up our web presence, generating new blogs and profiling exciting ongoing research.
On these calls, I’ve found myself nodding along, smiling, trying to agree, trying to think about how the network that I am leading might also ‘not go away’. But, in the call with Leon my 6-year-old was climbing on me while I tried to reimagine our work and my 4-year-old was pulling on my jumper, repeating over and over that she was hungry. I had to leave the Network Plus call early as both kids started throwing pillows at me in a bid for attention. So, despite my smiles and nods, the refrain that has really been running through my head about our network as I sit on these calls is “we are going to go away, we are going away, we have gone away.”
I didn’t and don’t want to go away. I’ve cried about it. I’ve tried to think about ways around it, to be creative, to innovate, but I’ve also been interrupted to rebuild a den three times since I sat down to write the above two short paragraphs. So, I haven’t gotten very far on the creative new ideas.
Where I have gotten to though, which I have come to think of as progress, is to a point where I can see reconstructing the den as a priority. I now know that I need to put the den before what I might rather be doing professionally. I add the den as urgent to the top of my list of work tasks, many of which are also communicated to me as urgent.
I know we are privileged to be safe and comfortable in our home. Much more privileged than many around the world, including those with whom our Network Plus partners work directly. Knowing this, I’m starting to accept that despite my resistance to going away, it might actually be an appropriate response for international collaborative research. Our network, EDJAM, officially started at the beginning of April. It brings together colleagues based in Cambodia, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda and here in the UK. When I first wrote this in late April, each country was in a version of lockdown and this has fluctuated since with different parts of the world moving in and out of lockdown. In April, all the organisations where our colleagues work were physically closed and all our colleagues were trying to work from home. Schools were closed and, like me, colleagues were trying to home school and fill our children’s days in ways that ease some of the strain on them. And, in all cases, our inboxes were filled with various urgencies involved in keeping our Universities and NGOs going. Across our network, our families and social circles have been affected by Covid-19 in different ways and we are all mourning in some way. Some specific individual combination of mourning for our lives before, the distance from those we love, the things that we or our close family members have had to see and do in responding to coronavirus, the mounting numbers of deaths around the world and in our home places, and the individuals that were ours within those numbers. So, all that happened on April 1st in our network was that I emailed everyone involved to say that for the time being, we are going away.
Permission for things to be how they are
I sent the email out of the necessity of being on pause – the necessity for me. Because my kids have developed ever more creative strategies for sabotaging work Zoom calls (including my 4-year-old daughter mooning colleagues and my 6-year-old son closing the computer with a ‘goodbye forever’ to the Undergraduate Dean). Because other parts of my job have not gone away, will not go away, and I am struggling to do them. Because I needed something to go away and this was one thing that I had (some) control over, though of course the funders do not want us to go away and there is work involved in making pause a possibility – more on this later. I cried about the email, though. This was not the part of my job I wanted to go away.
Having permission, in one aspect of professional life, to acknowledge that things are how they are and to not have to keep going was welcome news to most colleagues in our network, despite how excited we all are about this project and the work we will eventually do together. On another project, those who were keen to carry on and innovate were in urban centres, had fast internet, and were in life stages where caring responsibilities were minimal. Not going away is more possible for some than for others and trying to pursue this strategy, changing course rather than pausing, produces new silences as well as producing new knowledge.
Maybe eventually we will have to innovate and find new ways to do our work together. Maybe we’ll have to be creative and resilient and all the things our employers are urging us to be already, now, today. But for right now, we’ll just wait and see. We’ll take it day by day. We’ll make dens.
And, it turns out that we made ourselves a den, too. It turns out we haven’t entirely gone away, we’ve just gone inside. Like we’ve been asked to, as my son regularly reminds me. We do meet on Zoom or Whatsapp and on Facebook or Twitter to check on one another. To hear about how things are going in our corners of the world, to laugh at the latest ways our children are slowly driving us crazy, to rage at Amazon’s profit margins, and to see each other’s faces. We don’t talk about our project specifically, but often we do talk about the ideas that underpin it. The ideas that we all care about and that brought us together and from which we’ve become friends as well as collaborators. I think this being inside together (but apart) – an inside together that comes without to do lists and expectations, with patience and a willingness to listen, care and support – means that when the day by day makes it possible for us to go outside again, to have a more public-facing element to our work and to start our activities together in earnest, we’ll do so from a place of trust and energy. We’ll have more fun and we might also do a better job of the work. We’ll hopefully be more attuned to each other’s realities and be able to work respectfully together in a way that continues to give us each permission for things to be how they are and maybe also allows us to get something done.
Work for later or making pause a possibility
When we were writing the proposal for our network, we agreed underpinning values for it, aspiring for a feminist and anti-racist collaboration. And, while I’ve railed against going away or staying inside, I think that probably, for us, in the circumstances that the colleagues involved in the project find ourselves, it is probably the approach that most embodies those values we laid out to guide our work. I’m not suggesting that all international collaborative projects should go away for a while or that going away is necessarily a feminist response. But I am suggesting that it is okay for us to go away, and in some circumstances like ours, it is probably right for us to go away. And, as coronavirus has been described as a disaster for feminism and for academic careers of women and those with caring responsibilities, maybe going inside, which I found so disempowering, gendered and unfair, is a feminist response in its putting caring for each other, ourselves and our loved ones, listening and giving space, first. Looking at going away/inside from this angle also makes clear what we should put second and – as is often the case when choosing feminist and/or anti-racist courses of action – choosing to go away/inside will also create more work for us. So, instead of first turning our attention to innovation in the delivery of our planned activities, we’ll need to work to make a pause a possibility. This will involve work with funders who have already opened the doors for no-cost extensions, but not for costed ones, which will be essential for colleagues funded by our project; work with our Universities whose workload spreadsheets don’t include going away time and whose expectations for coronavirus include ‘innovation’, ‘new solutions’ and ‘one activity to keep your children busy until lunchtime’ and whose progression criteria haven’t changed to accommodate how things are. So, we’ll come outside for that additional work, in this case the work of making it okay to pause. At some point, we will also weave that work into the existing commitments of our network and we’ll use the relationships we’ve strengthened while inside at home to open new possibilities and create space to acknowledge and work within the realities of international collaboration during a pandemic.
Last November, the teacher training college of Colima, Mexico, also known as ISENCO, organised its first International Conference on Educational Research and Evaluation. It was such an achievement considering that these normal schools[i] in Mexico were not involved in these academic environments until very recently. We both graduated from ISENCO and therefore, presenting and leading a workshop about qualitative data analysis meant for us giving back a little to the institution that forged a foundational stage in our lives.
Many valuable experiences could be drawn from the conference. The energy emerged from the first space to exchange research and practice between pre-service teachers, young and established academics, generated a unique environment with high potential to build bridges of collaboration. At another level, deepening our understanding of the contributions of Mexican Scholars in the field of Education was hugely gratifying. It was particularly remarkable to learn about Juan Manuel Gutiérrez Vázquez’s work in the Mexican Polytechnic and at the University of Bristol.
Dr Juan Manuel Gutiérrez Vazquez (‘JM’)
During the conference we talked to Dr Mario Chavez Campos, Head of the Directorate for Higher Education for Educational Studies in Mexico. He was highly intrigued that we did not know his old friend, Dr Juan Manuel Gutiérrez Vazquez (also known as JM by his friends and colleagues). According to him, ‘JM’ was a renowned Mexican scholar that worked at the Graduate School of Education after his retirement. He also mentioned that Pablo Latapí, a distinguished academic in Educational Studies in Mexico (particularly famous among normal schools) admired JM. This fantastic introduction made us very keen to explore further JM’s life and contribution to the School of Education (SoE, previously known as the Graduate School of Education, GSoE).
On our return to Bristol, we kept thinking about him, and luckily, we found several papers of JM, including an obituary written by his wife, Ruth Watson, published in The Guardian in December 2008[ii]. JM was a microbiologist who pioneered in the search for a vaccine for tuberculosis and author of free Science textbooks for Mexican primary school students in the 1970’s. His widow mentions in the obituary that he worked at the University of Bristol for ten years since 1987. Also, we gladly found an extract of the preface written by Pablo Latapí for the last book ever published by Juan Manuel Gutiérrez, Education and Ordinary Life, in 2008. We hope to make justice to the translation of such an emotive display of friendship between these two grand scholars:
Those who know him in person, or who have the privilege of considering him a friend, know that he is an extraordinary person. In himself, there conflate in admirable synergy, as rarely seen in a single individual: the scientific, the teacher inside and outside the classroom (in all levels and modalities of the education system), the leaders’ advisor, the producer of educational mediums, the critical writer, the excellent communicator and the sincere artist, sentient and erudite. Those of us who have interacted with him have gained. He has transmitted to us his joy for living and his kindness, his tenacity, and generous friendship, fine in spirit, open to the world, adept to the unconventional and of human closeness[iii].
Our search for more insight about this notable scholar led us to ask among the current academics at the SoE. We were not successful, but we were still to ask Prof Michael Crossley, Emeritus Professor of Comparative and International Education and Founding Director of CIRE. He was returning from a trip to Papua New Guinea and Australia and was glad that we found out about his very good friend JM. Professor Crossley let us know of his closeness to him and his family in the 1990s, and the various research projects they worked on together in Belize, Central America and in Northern Pakistan. He sent us pictures of them in Islamabad and Northern Pakistan where they were collaborating with the Ministry of Education to help in the improvement of the quality of teaching and learning, and in providing workshops on textbook provision, writing and use. Michael permitted us to share such pictures with the CIRE community through this blog entry, and we sincerely appreciate the time he took in looking for them in his library.
From left to right: Juan Manuel Gutiérrez Vázquez, Bob Smith, and Michael Crossley. All academics from the GSoE, University of Bristol. Circa 1991/92 in Northern Pakistan.
From left to right, Michael Crossley, Bob Smith, Myra Murby (textbook consultant) and JM.
A group photo in Islamabad, Pakistan. Circa 1991/92.
Besides being the scholar and the friend, Juan Manuel takes on great significance for the times we live. Ruth Watson, his widow, couldn’t summarise it better:
He is remembered in Mexico not only for his achievements in improving science education but also for defending the Polytechnic against government troops in 1968. His refusal to allow them on campus to quell student riots resulted in the temporary confiscation of his passport. A disillusioned member of the Communist Party, he held to strong socialist convictions which translated into a life dedicated to public service and the upholding of freedom of political expression.
JM’s legacy provides testimony of the diverse community that has forged the past and present ethos of our SoE. In particular, the image of JM with Professor Crossley and other scholars from different contexts should remind us all about the rich history of our SoE, and the potential for fruitful partnership between scholars from the global south and north. We wish many more JMs emerge and keep inspiring, educating, and giving hope to the future generations of students at the SoE.
We want to express our gratitude to Professor Michael Crossley for his invaluable insight into the academic work of JM while in Bristol, and for sharing these photos from his collection. Furthermore, we want to thank Betzabé Torres for commenting on the preliminary version of this text.
Most of JM’s work was published in print. Few of his contributions were digitalised after his death for academic journals in Latin America. In 2008, the journal Revista Mexicana de Investigación Educativagathered some of his latest works for a Special issue that can be found here.
[i] These are Higher Education institutions concerned with the initial teacher education of most pre-service educators in Mexico.
[ii] Gutiérrez, Ruth (2008). Juan Manuel Gutiérrez Vázquez. The Guardian, Obituaries. Retrieved here.
[iii] Latapí Sarré, Pablo (2008). Recuerdos de Juan Manuel Gutiérrez Vázquez. Revista Mexicana de Investigación Educativa. Vol. 13 No. 39, México Oct/Dec 2008. Retrieved here.
What ideas inspire and challenge your thinking in Comparative and International Research in Education?
Here is a list of books that have animated some of us at CIRE. These are a selection of books that we’ve found exciting for our scholarship, or that we are reading at the moment, or that are on our never-ending wish-lists.
A quick glance and it’s clear that there are so many ideas and resources that can be brought to our shared interest in issues of social, environmental and epistemic justice in education.
We’d love to hear what you are reading over the summer – please leave your suggestions and thoughts in the comment box below!
Also … join us for three reading events this week and the next!
Tuesday, 7th July, 11am – Critical Ideas from the Periphery are hosting a reading group session on ecofeminism. Details here.
Thursday, 9th July, 6pm – Decoloniality and comparative education reading series on Vickers’ (2020) response to Takayama et al. (2017). Info available here.
Thursday, 16th July, 5pm. Book launch Education for Sustainable Development in the Postcolonial World: Towards a Transformative Agenda for Africa by CIRE co-director Professor Leon Tikly; the event features guest speakers Emily Echessa (Save the Children), Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka (Rhodes University, South Africa), Dr Zibah Nwako (University of Bristol, UK), and Professor Arathi Sriprakash (University of Cambridge, UK). Sign up here.
In this write up from Leanne Cameron and Martin Preston, we summarise the conversation from the first in a series of reading group sessions around decoloniality and the field of comparative and international education (CIE). This first session (held 25 June) was focused on the 2017 article “Toward a Postcolonial Comparative and International Education” by Takayama, Sriprakash, and Connell. We were fortunate to be joined by Arathi Sriprakash, one of the authors.
In starting off the discussion, Robin provided some contextual information about the article itself: the article introduced a special edition on “Contesting Coloniality: Rethinking Knowledge Production and Circulation in Comparative and International Education” in Comparative Education Review. He noted that it is rare to have a special edition in CER – they occur about every six years – and since CER is printed through a non-profit press, they have a set number of pages and thus journal space is “a finite resource that people are fighting for.”
CIE can be viewed as a field dominated by white voices and perhaps more conservative viewpoints. He provided the example of AERA (the American Educational Research Association): the theme of social justice runs as a distinct thread through all of their work. Even a casual glance at the website indicates their celebration of Juneteenth, the African-American holiday in celebration of the emancipation of slaves. CIE can perhaps be seen to function as a space of ‘white flight’ away from more progressive, reflexive scholarship.
Robin provided some further context around CIE journals across the field, noting that every other major journal has a white male editor, with the exception of Compare, which has a female co-editor. It was unprecedented, then, for this special edition to be headed by a diverse editorial team. The special edition has become known as the ‘blue issue’ (which Robin noted reminds him of the Beatle’s White Album) and Takayama et al, as the introduction to that issue, is the most downloaded article from CER in 2019 by a factor of three. The second most downloaded article, he noted, was a review of the children’s film Zootopia, where the authors analysed the use of racist tropes for the animal characters. Robin argued that this demonstrated the sort of appetite for critical, decolonial work within the journal and the field at large.
The idea of an ‘appetite’ was also broached by Arathi. Leanne and Martin, as PhD students and early career researchers, asked the more senior academics for advice about taking on work. Especially in the era of coronavirus and economic downturn, what are the ethical concerns in taking contract work or jobs from institutions like the World Bank, whose work may perpetuate the epistemic hierarchies that Takayama et al. (2017) seek to dismantle? Arathi (and several other academics) advised that ECRs take work wherever they can get it, but we can still look to “carve out epistemic communities within your institution.” In these epistemic communities, you can create spaces for discussion and debate – to build coalitions and bring people together. “There is an appetite for it,” she told the group. “Everything begins with ideas.”
Leanne posed a question meant to provoke: in the article, the authors expose the racist viewpoints and expression of CIE ‘father’ Isaac L. Kandel. He was instrumental in pushing the discipline to “provide fully contextual knowledge of other countries’ educational practices, especially because superficial ac- counts of them are often mobilized to justify policy options at home” (Takayama et al., 2017, p. S2). However, he also demonstrated his beliefs of Western superiority, the ‘importance’ of the colonial project, and white supremacy in statements such as “the education of backward or indigenous people in colonial dependencies is beginning to receive attention to a degree never manifested before” (p. S9). So, Leanne asked, what are we supposed to do with this history in CIE? Can we simply argue that Kandel (and others) was a ‘product of his era’, a response favoured by apologists for slave masters and the like?
Arathi pointed to the work of Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal whose recent book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent demonstrates who is erased when the narrative focuses only on the colonizer – or, in the case of Kandel, on Eurocentric education scholarship. “Who is erased when the narrative is told that way? Saying simply that he was ‘a product of his time’ erases those structures.” It is a question of epistemic politics in deciding who gets included and excluded, and these are active politics: those voices did exist, but who today do we count as ‘knowledge’ from that era? Who is in the room, and who is allowed to be in the room? Rafael noted as well that “there are spaces to look back at figures [like Kandel] but that kind of history is one that is relevant as far as it is informing what we are doing now. Where are we going?” Looking back to dissenting, ‘hidden’ voices emerged as a concrete step that CIE as a discipline can take in moving the debate forward.
Several other ideas were put forth as ways to move forward as a field. Terra suggested that we continue to focus on writing blogs in multiple languages (as with this example from Julia Paulson’s interview with Arturo Charria Hernández, written in both Spanish and English). We can do small things, Terra advised, in order to “show that we are not comfortable with English dominance and what that says about knowledge.” She also noted the burden that falls especially on American/European researchers and white people in the field: “we have to welcome not being welcome.” As researchers, whilst we can look to work with communities of epistemic resistance, we don’t belong in every space – there are places where we need to sit out. Just as colonialism expertly abused nations and people for raw materials and data, diverse epistemologies are also not simply “data mines for the accumulation of knowledge and the development of theory in the global North” (Takayama et al., 2017, p. S3).
The conversation also included the concept of intellectual and epistemic reparations as a form of reparative justice. Dismantling existing epistemic hierarchies is, in fact, a form of repair as it corrects what has previously been built on violence and prevents the reproduction of those same damaging dynamics. Material and financial reparations in larger community spaces are gaining some traction in this social moment, but as intellectuals, we can act concretely in our own spaces. Arathi asked that we think about what knowledge has been denied or silenced. How can we give voice – not in a paternalistic sense, but a critical, uncomfortable, and meaningful way – to diverse epistemologies? How can we think differently about dominant knowledge to see where that knowledge has become redundant or not feasible?
In moving forward with this series of reading groups, we discussed the possibility of collaborative writing to consider the future of the field. Terra suggested an approach used in the January TESF workshops, where visual notetakers asked participants three questions: what do you dread? What do you dream? How do you realise that dream? We will take these three questions forward, thinking around our dreads, dreams, and paths to realisation for the field of CIE when we meet again.
Next meeting: Thursday, 9 July from 6:00-7:15pm on Zoom. We will look at the Vickers’ (2020) response to the Takayama et al. (2017) paper. Please sign up here.
Vickers, E. (2020). Critiquing coloniality, ‘epistemic violence’ and western hegemony in comparative education–the dangers of ahistoricism and positionality. Comparative Education, 56(2), 165-189.
In Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, the protagonist laments that his town of Dickens has lost its status as an official city. The fictitious city, based closely on Compton in Southern California, becomes absorbed into the greater city of Los of Angeles. The erased city limits of Dickens come to represent the paradoxical status of race, which is both a ubiquitous feature of life yet also a category that is not officially recognized in a “colour-blind” society.
The weeks following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have witnessed two competing discourses on racism in British Universities. On the one hand, universities have been quick to vocalize their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, advocating racial equality in more assertive and urgent terms than in the past (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). On the other hand, critical commentators have rightly pointed to their poor record of supporting racial equality in practice (e.g. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). This is evident in the lack of Black members of staff, who comprise just 2.1% of UK university staff but 13% of the population. Universities that truly value Black lives would ensure that they are well-represented and empowered in the organization, but the online movement #BlackInIvory highlights experiences of persistent marginalization.
In response, most universities would point to hiring policies that specifically promote equality, diversity and inclusion. Such policies protect against discrimination by ensuring data on applicants’ social backgrounds (including race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics) is processed separately from the application and by specifically welcoming applicants who hold these “protected characteristics.” Universities could therefore claim that the underrepresentation of Black staff is not due to hiring practices, because these practices do not consider race and therefore cannot be racist.
However, these practices also closely resemble what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (15) terms colour-blind racism, spurious attempts to achieve racial equality by suppressing acknowledgment of racialized histories and identities. Like Beatty’s town of Dickens, color-blind racism erases the city limits, but the landscape remains unchanged. While the categories of race are removed from legitimate discourse, the experiences and standards of dominant race groups remain the norm and expectation in public institutions. This means that students and staff at Universities must confront racist and discriminatory treatment, assumption and expectations, but they are also denied recourse to the terms that would articulate their oppression.
Instead of maintaining a “colour-blind” approach to hiring, British universities could do much more to embody and promote racial justice in their hiring practices. The Equalities and Diversities Act of 2010 allows employers to give preference to under-represented groups in hiring, provided that the candidates are equally qualified (Part 11, Ch 2.4, also 16). In practice, universities tend to cite practices such as targeted advertising or statements welcoming underrepresented groups as positive action (e.g. 17, 18, 19, 20), although the Equalities and Diversities Act instead more directly identifies contracts of employment to equally qualified, applicants from under-represented groups (Part 11, Ch 2.5). Thus, it seems that universities are watering down the intentions of “positive action” and also under-utilizing the means to achieve equitable representation of Black staff provided by current legislation.
A better step to addressing systemic racism in hiring would be to embed contributions to diversity as a priority in appointment criteria. For example, requiring candidates to demonstrate their accomplishments contributing to diversity and inclusion, with the same weight and objectivity that research and teaching are considered, through a written statement would give meaningful recognition to the additional work and challenges that most academics from Black and other minority groups have been required to undertake as part of institutional survival (21, 22). Well-evidenced statements of contributions to diversity are already a standard aspect of academic hiring at many elite universities in other countries.
The title of a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute – The White Elephant in the Room – highlights the extent to which the colour-blind approach embraced in British higher education is no longer tenable. However, progress against the report’s top two recommendations, that universities should participate in the sector-wide Race Equality Charter and facilitate more conversations about race, is minimal. More than four years after its inception, only 14 universities have received a bronze level award from the Race Equality Charter, with no awards at higher levels. Writing in the HEPI report, Kalwant Bhopal notes “there is little or no imperative to shift the focus to uncomfortable conversations about race and racism in higher education,” because, unlike Athena SWAN certification, the Race Equality Charter is not required by research councils.
The white elephant in the room also highlights an important aspect of universities; they tend to think of themselves as neutral rather than white spaces, despite the many signs of white dominance. A first step in moving from colour-blind racism to an anti-racist university will be to come to terms with this whiteness, to listen to the experiences of Black academics and other academics of colour (23, 24), to unlearn current practices and to make universities a space that recognizes and values the experiences of Black academics and professionals and ensures their representation as colleagues in universities.
Thanks to Julia Paulson, Deborah Brewis, Ugbaad Aidid and Lizzi Milligan for feedback on a draft of this post
By Angelika Peplinski, Liz Barrett, Muassua David, Natalia Hayes, Gaukhar Kenzhebayeva and Collet Mweene
This blog is an output from a reading group on climate activism that ran from February to March 2020 as part of the Masters unit ‘Education, Peace and Sustainable Development.’
On the 28th February over 15,000 people gathered in Bristol to hear Greta Thunberg and take part in the Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate. Despite the miserable weather, Greta’s presence inspired thousands of people to join the collective effort to tackle the ecological crisis and hold politicians and leaders accountable for their lack of action.
Marching up Park Street following Greta’s talk (photo credit: Aminath Shiyama)
Indigenous resistance is rooted in collectivism. Their “systems of sustainability were destroyed precisely because they were incompatible with systems of exploitation and extraction” (Niheu 2019: 124-125) emblematic of neoliberal ideology. Via nonviolent collective action, many indigenous communities have sought repatriation: “Indigenous people are the guardians of ancestral knowledge that draws from the environment the solutions of everyday life” (Ibrahim 2019: 56). Therefore, climate justice and indigenous rights interlink. However, this is often not recognised in mainstream media.
Media coverage of the climate emergency focusses mainly on the Global North. It depicts climate activism as led by mainly white, middle class people and thus neglects the experiences of the Global South. Uganda climate activist Vanessa Nakate “was cropped out of a press photo in Davos” when posing alongside white climate activists, including Greta Thunberg. This incident illustrates the connection of climate justice and social justice. Issues of racism need to be addressed as the Global South is experiencing immediate consequences of the ecological crisis. Lake Chad, which used to cover 25,00 square kilometres, now only covers about 2,500. Indigenous communities “have lost 90 per cent of this resource so essential for the life of one of the poorest regions in the world” (Ibrahim 2019: 54). Almost 52 million people in Africa have become food insecure due to the effects of climate change, yet the media often choses to ignore these stories. The irony is not only that the Global South remains unheard while they are the most impacted, but that they also contribute the least amount of the global greenhouse emissions.
The lack of recognition of ethnic minorities and their voices has been an issue for centuries and right now this ignorance poses an immediate danger. With the ongoing disappearance of indigenous knowledge, “it is a part of the memory of humanity that is threatened with extinction” (Ibrahim 2019: 56). More than ever, is it important to include, recognize and represent minorities in discussions regarding climate change and climate activism. Nature is the work tool for many indigenous communities. Hence, their expertise is needed to protect nature. “Indigenous peoples do not want to be silent victims of climate change. They are ready to share their traditional knowledge, and to (re)teach humankind how to live in harmony with nature” (Ibid. 57). It is easy for the Global North to dismiss climate change as an abstract future threat, but activism has the potential to make unheard voices heard: “In the southern narratives, we see how hope, guilt, and anger combine to avert the paralyzing effects of acute fear” (Kleres & Wettergren 2017: 517). The Global North has a responsibility to embrace these feelings in a collective effort to tackle climate change. Activism can pave the way for climate and social justice, but only if we recognise the voices that up to now we have chosen to ignore.
Ibrahim, H. O. (2019). Indigenous people and the fight for survival. In Extinction Rebellion (ed.). This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. Penguin Books. pp. 54–57.