My Colonialist Students

My students all sound like junior colonial officials. Formal colonialism has largely disappeared as an institution, but idealism that justified it still flourishes.

My students want to help people develop. They want to educate people. They want to find victims and rescue them. They want to teach them sustainable development, encourage good governance, provide assistance, bring justice. They have ideas about how people should behave. They know what is better for people. They have something to teach people. They want to preserve their cultures. They want to develop local knowledge. They want to show people how to interact with the world. They want to create programs to organize people. They want to bring medical service and sexual morality. They assume people will want to learn what they have to teach. . . . These are the same sentiments that can be found in the correspondence, diaries and public pronouncements of colonial officials for over a century.

And the students can believe all these things, because they are so sure they are not colonialists. Colonial officials (and their descendants in the World Bank or other foriegn aid institutions) were racist, arrogant or clueless. They did’t understand local conditions. They believed in absurd theories, or were impractical and utopian. Their claims help were a cover for exploitation and self-aggrandizement. First and foremost, they served their own nation, their own class, and their own egos. They spent more effort on presenting media images and replicating their own administration than in helping people. . . . But we know all of this now. Our motivations are different. We are thoughtful and we can act differently. Colonial officials both created stereotypes and can be described by stereotypes. We don’t do that.

My students insist it is urgent. We have to act now, the world is changing too quickly. No time to slow down, live with those people for a couple of years, make friends, perhaps get laid and get married. We can’t take the time to learn about the world from their perspective first. The world is threatening, and we have to help people who don’t have the means to understand it themselves. We have to organize them, educate them, save them.

My students won’t join colonial administrations. But they will join and eventually run INGOs, international agencies, multinational corporations, social service agencies, courts and governments. They will become lawyers, doctors, administrators and university professors. And the more they become seeped in their professions, the less they will be able to see the world from any other perspective, the more they will insist that other people live up to their vision of how people should be.

I work in a university designed to seep students in a certain understanding of the world, and to prepare students to carry those ideals to the world.

I don’t want to be part of it any more.


Posted on October 2, 2012, in Academic History, Society and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This articulates one of my, until now, unarticluated reasons for discontinuing my own academic pursuits. This is an important idea that needs to be shared. With your permission, I would like to repost this on my own site.

  1. Pingback: the unhistoricist « quaycommunication


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