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Hope within the Limits of Education

by John Willinsky - September 03, 2002

Consideration of the diverse roles of education in an international context.

One of the first few rays of light to emerge from war-shattered Afghanistan after the Taliban’s fall came from the schools reopening in Kandahar and Kabul as winter set in and the daily vapor trails of the B-52s still creased the sky. The excitement in the air was clearly felt not only by the young girls gathering at the school for the first time and the young women in their 20s returning to now finish high school, but perhaps more so by the women, some with degrees from Kabul University, who were now able to return to teaching after seven years of being barred from the classroom. Some of the women dared to hold secret lessons in their homes in a women’s resistance movement to the Taliban.[1] In Kabul, a woman who was once again able to serve as a school supervisor told a reporter, “I am so happy I cannot fit in my clothes.”[2]


It was an inspiring, uplifting moment, in a land where war has destroyed some 2,000 schools over the last two decades according to UN estimates and where literacy levels among women fall between 4 and 10 percent. It cannot help but reaffirm how something as simple as a school opening its doors again can be a sign of hope, a symbol of order, a return of reasonableness. “We have been praying for this day,” Hama Sofia, a woman in Kandahar who had taught before the Taliban took power, is quoted as saying, “I always had faith that it would come.” She then added the Afghan proverb, that “when the river is dry, water always returns in the spring.” [3]  This faith in education, this sense that it marks a season of renewal and hope, is decidedly part of the call of this profession. It is why we were first drawn to stand before the classroom as nervous and uncertain student teachers, and it is why we are here today. Yet this sense of education’s inspiring powers is also part of what took a profound hit on September 11. The weight of transgression and terror rocked the sheltered refuge of the school, in ways that I am hoping will eventually lead organizations such as the American Educational Research Association to rethink their global role and responsibilities.


Certainly, education seemed to be continually caught if only in the background of this disconcerting picture, from before the beginning through the continuing unfolding of this tragic event and its aftermath. Not only was the quirky behavior of the terrorists at the American flight schools the first warning signs – with calls made to the FBI by at least one vigilant flight instructor – the terrorists on the airplane include, the press was quick to note, “educated” men.[4] Here was the disconcerting spectrum of education not ensuring a greater respect for life, whether one’s own or that of others. Then we learned that Mullah Muhammad Omar, head of the deposed Taliban regime, had found his political start while running a madrasa, a mud-brick religious school that he built in the village of Sangesar, on the outskirts of Kandahar. Omar’s madrasa was vandalized after the Northern Alliance and American victory and looted of the “books that Mullah Omar regarded as too important to be handled by the local boys,” as a reporter on the scene put it.[5] Clearly what goes on in the name of education has been drawn into this war on terrorism.


In the Western press’s search for an answer as to why anyone would assume the hate-filled self-sacrificing life of terrorism, the madrasa has repeatedly come up as a form of education at the root of evil. Consider the New York Times’ photograph of a madrasa that portrayed a class of boys, in white cotton robes, with gefiyas on their heads, sitting on an aquamarine floor with one leg pulled up beneath their chins, with the Korans open before them on low wooden desks. The caption reads, “Islamic Teachings: Many religious schools, or madrasas, like this one in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, have been breeding grounds for anti-Western sentiment and have sent Muslim fighters into the front lines.”[6] That “Islamic teachings” could be breeding – always a troubling word in human contexts – evil sentiments needs to be reconciled with the great Sultan Hassan Mosque and madrasa, one of the architectural wonders of Cairo, constructed in 1256 AD as a religious school whose sunlit inner-courtyard, with the intricate geometries of its tiled walls and archway, has served a variety of Islamic sects in forms of study far removed from terror and conquest.


“The madrasas were basically built to cater to the needs of orphans and the socially deprived,” an Afghan scholar in Kabul told a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, while their identification with resisting modernity and other forms of what are regarded as cultural imperialism is relatively recent.[7] The evidence from Pakistan does point to how these residential religious schools, which support some 700,000 children, largely but not entirely boys, spread among 6,000 to 8,000 madrasas, are indeed capable of inspiring some students to desire to be, as thirteen-year-old Kurran has said, “a holy warrior and religious scholar.”[8] And the madrasas were thus rightfully targeted by Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf, as he instituted new rules governing the schools, on January 12, 2002, as a measure against terrorism, rules that would broaden their curriculum, moving it away from an exclusively religious focus, with its overtones of jihad, as well as measures that would restrict their intake of foreign students.[9]


Yet if the effort to reduce the ignorance of Islam in the West is about more than a photo-op of George W. Bush attending a feast concluding Ramadan, then we must believe that “Islamic teaching” is something more diverse, more rich and varied, more thoughtful and engaged, than is suggested by a phrase like “breeding grounds for anti-Western sentiment.” It may be tempting to deny the madrasa, with its emphasis on memorizing and reciting the Koran, the very name of education. Yet to do so could limit the importance of education at issue here to the importance of our most prized and progressive ideas about education. This can only restrict our ability to move beyond older imperial models of a world divided between the civilized and the barbaric. We are here to open the discussion of education’s importance. To keep this from being nothing more than a self-serving conversation among like-minded professors of education, we need to consider how to build on a global scale what we have always sought in the classroom, an educational atmosphere of sustained and secure inquiry, open to exchange, challenge and disagreement, over what to make of education.


To seek “the importance of education” within the shadow of this terrorist attack is to continually confront limits to what we think of as education. It was hard, if not impossible to think about education, about the lessons learned or sense made, given the immediate trauma of September 11, with its accompanying babble of television voices and the discomforting silence when those voices were turned off. As time wore on, I came to see that some of these educational limits were unavoidable in this situation, as it ran so contrary to what is inherent to education’s project; other limits seem imposed on education, as if to conscript it for purposes it was not intended to serve. To limit our expectations of education to what it does reasonably well, to a particular disposition that it holds toward the world, is to protect the concept, keeping it from being all things for all people. It may seem harsh to turn in difficult times to the limits of what we do and know, in thinking about education. Yet September 11 made it strikingly clear that one’s own education can fall short in protecting one from the incomprehensible, just as making that event comprehensible was in itself a way of removing oneself from the experience, diverting one’s attention to something other than it. It means facing what is at once obvious and yet necessarily ignorable for life to go on, which is that whatever improvement in the spread and improvement of education we may contribute to may not be enough to render the world an orderly, sensible, rational place.


You might well ask, how could an education prepare one for such an event? And yet I am not sure that we would ever desire an education that could prepare us for such things. I am not sure what “prepared” for such terror would even mean in terms of what we normally think of as education. As it was, those whose professional careers are devoted to learning about, and taking action against, such threats – by drawing on the lessons of the 1993 terrorist bombing that killed six people in the basement of the World Trade Center, the bombing with hundreds killed at the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salamm in 1998 and the Yemen naval attack – now stand accused of “a failure of intelligence.”[10] But this sort of “intelligence” is not the intelligence that we seek to educate through our work. It is not in the spirit of the education that we typically pursue to prepare people for the unthinkable, the unspeakable. And that may be why the advice of Fred Rogers (of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”) may still be wise counsel, however dissatisfying it is from an educational perspective: “I’m sad about the news,” he recommends you say to the child who asks about September 11, “and I’m worried. But I love you and I am here for you.”[11] You can hear in his voice, however reassuring, how our educational hopes of learning from the world can be temporarily eclipsed.


The phrase often repeated immediately after the attack, to the point of cliché-dom as Joyce Carol Oates has noted, was “words fail us.” Oates has written of how we can experience “symptoms of anxiety that culminate in the mind simply blanking out: as words fail us in extremis, so do coherent sensations fail us.” Yet she goes on to admonish us to recognize that “ideally, we should retain the intellectual knowledge that such traumas as the terrorist attacks have given us, while assimilating and moving beyond the rawness of the emotional experience.”[12] But before moving on and over this rawness, let us consider that this rare sense of bumping up against language’s limits, limits of expression, sensibility and, thus, limits of education. Otherwise, we are skirting around this need to explain ourselves, to see what this belief in education is made of, that it falls short, or rather does not apply at this point.


Still, in the face of such events, some do turn to a basic educational need to know, much as a priest turns to prayer (though we may do that as well). Learning can be a faith, a source of solace. On the very day of the attacks on New York and Washington, we sat riveted by the endlessly repeated images and the endless television talk reaffirming how little we know at this point, even as knowing what little was known was all that one could ask for, all that one did ask for. It was really a time of silence before the incomprehensible, even as the talking heads would not stop talking.


As this search for meaning took the educational form, many found themselves, for months afterward, sitting over their morning coffee, trying to makes sense of how the World Trade Center collapsed by studying the newspaper’s cutaway diagrams of the buildings’ structural features, or considering the tenuous relationship between Islam and terrorism by reading an op-ed piece based on the Koran’s advice for “dealing kindly and justly with” non-believers (Koran, 60:8). And then many also devoted a moment’s meditation to the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief,” those poignantly turned 200-word obituaries for terrorism’s victims, a page or two of which ran every day until the end of the year, as a national newspaper of record temporarily became small-town enough to include heartfelt insights into the character of ordinary lives cut abruptly, tragically short by this event.[13]


Here was knowledge’s consolation, here was its limits. People perhaps gained a glimpse of engineering principles or Islamic teachings in their efforts to comprehend what had taken place. Such learning has not been so much an education, as the coming across of small islands of sense and meaning, in the open seas of a churning world. The traumatic, incomprehensible quality of this terrible event brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s abrupt response to the Holocaust: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”[14] The Holocaust and the terrorist attack of September 11 are not comparable in any meaningful way, and yet Adorno’s declaration captures the immediate undoing of the spirit and vision necessary for art (and for education). What hangs in the balance of this “after” (as in “after Auschwitz”) is the time it takes to absorb the great disruption, even as the scars remain. After all, great poetry has been written after Auschwitz, and much will be written after recent terrorist attacks on Washington and New York. Just as importantly, poetry proved a place to turn in the aftermath.


“The events of September 11 nailed home many of my basic convictions,” writes poet and professor Mary Karr, “including the notion that lyric poetry dispenses more relief – if not actual salvation – during catastrophic times than perhaps any other art form.”[15] And she goes on in this article to cite from the poem trauma, “There Was Earth Inside Them,” by Paul Celan, himself a Holocaust survivor, that speaks so well of the trauma: “They dug and heard nothing more; / they did not grow wise, invented no song, / thought up for themselves no language. / They dug.”[16] Only afterward does the experience come to be understood and worked out coherently, as Celan published this poem in a 1963 collection. It takes time, and a little distance, to arrive at those reflective moments that quietly mark the steps in our education. So Mary Karr, herself a teacher of poetry at Syracuse University, came to reflect publicly some five months later on the relief poetry dispenses. The statute of limitations, in the educational sense that I am considering here, had passed for Mary Karr.


And yet as we begin to consider what we could neither adequately prepare for nor sufficiently learn from, at least in any immediate sense, we are confronted by how aspects of the initial trauma stays with us, as something to be addressed within those convictions. So George Steiner, another admirer of Celan’s poetry and the one who first introduced me to the themes of silence and poetry that followed on Auschwitz, writes of how he learned the place of the Holocaust in his life: “I do not claim for this hideousness any singular privilege; but this is the crisis of rational, humane expectation which has shaped my own life and with which I am most directly concerned.” [17] Steiner’s sustained concern with what that event has meant to his education and identity, steeped as it was in Bach, Kant, and Goethe, has driven him to wrest whatever lessons he could from the initial silence, and the many subsequent silences. This is where education finds its place, its difficult importance. It is also where education again faces its own limits and silences.


To teach, Steiner claims in reference to Aeschylus and Shakespeare, “as if the authority of the texts in our lives were immune from recent history, is subtle but corrosive illiteracy.” He makes plain the loss of assurance, the undermining of the teacher’s arrogant belief in education, “axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force and that the energies of spirit are transferable to conduct.”[18] And he goes as far as to question, in a second essay on this theme, his very profession of literature: “We must countenance the possibility that the study of literature and transmission of literature may be of only marginal significance, a passionate luxury like the preservation of the antique. Or, at worst, that it may detract from more urgent and responsible uses of time and energy of spirit.”[19] Here we have the limiting moment of self-doubt that needs to be heard, just as by essay’s end, his basic beliefs are restored and reasserted: “It is the task of literary criticism to help us read as total human beings, by examples of precision, fear, and delight.”[20] This educational faith is shaken by coming face to face with its limits, and then it is sharpened, even as it is understood all the more as a faith.


Yet that sharpening has been directed in many cases to limitations of yet another sort imposed on education, as the trauma is used to call into question the educational beliefs of others, as we have seen with the critique of Islamic learning. Closer to home, the inroads made by a multicultural perspective on curriculum, for example, have been challenged by Margaret Talbot of the New American Foundation, which seeks to carve out a “radical center” within America’s political landscape.[21] Talbot charges that what has left America more than a little deaf “to many of the world’s dangers” is shallow forms of multiculturalism which have cropped up in schools like dandelions across the playground. This shallowness, combined with declining foreign language participation and requirements in schools and colleges, is, in her opinion, what has left America vulnerable and deaf to the dangers. Talbot figures that what multiculturalism failed to do in alerting us to these dangers, “the war on terrorism will have to.” Here we are confronted by education’s importance to national security, reminiscent as it is of what happened a half-century ago, under the spell of a post-Sputnik cold-war, with the infusion of funding into science and math education in the United States. This call for a hard-nosed education, with little time for cultural differences, could be today’s version of don’t-be-soft-on-communism. This is to turn education into an instrument for tempering America, steeling it mentally against an ungrateful world that would otherwise take advantage of its trusting, interested nature.


Lest you think I’m no less an alarmist than Talbot, worrying about one columnist’s critiques of education (hers), only a week before in the November following the attack, U.S. Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige announced that educators “are now engaged in a war against terrorism.” When he asked college officials to increase the number of teachers trained, he reminded them that “education is the soil from which liberty grows.”[22] Yet as recent events have also taught us once again, war is as much the soil from which noxious weeds grow that overcome liberty, in the form of suspended civil liberties and rights. And to enlist education in a war against terrorism, as a means of protecting us from “many of the world’s dangers,” as Talbot put it, is to limit education severely in its scope and vision, it is to saddle it with a bunker mentality, head tucked down low and heart pounding in fear and excitement. It can only be less of an education, for that, making it one limitation to education’s importance at this time that I would ask we recognize and resist.


It should not surprise us that acts of terrorism on this scale disrupt education’s reflective, critical qualities, making the suspension of judgment, the asking of questions, seem like a concession to terrorist claims to victory. Yet to limit such educational interests, as anything but an initial response to the immediate shock, is to imprison ourselves educationally. It was disappointing, then, to see people on university campuses censured for reflecting on what might have driven the terrorist to commit such acts. It has meant that education was to fall in many cases within a far too sweeping suspension of civil liberties that followed the attack.[23] To take just two instances, Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of City University of New York, for example, felt compelled to repudiate the statements of those City College faculty who called the United States’ foreign policy and “capitalist cultural messages” into question.[24] Yet this was not simply an American response. Here in Vancouver, my colleague Sunera Thobani, was vilified in the Canadian press and by the Premier of this province for daring to speak out against United States’ foreign policy in the context of the attacks, as she addressed how this new war would increase violence against women.[25] At least in this case, the Provost of my university did stand up and publicly defend her freedom of speech, amid the calls for her firing from the university (as well as for sending her to live with the Taliban).


Rather than falling in line with the police-state effects of the war on terrorism, education’s important contributions to national security seem to me to have everything to do with securing public places, such as educational institutions, for asking questions and pursuing answers about the world, and doing so on both a local and global level. Education has everything to do with making us feel secure enough to face difficult questions, as what has long assumed about, say, our place in the world, now falls short. As educators, our job is to resist this ready deployment of education’s special forces, in defense of the nation. If education is going to push at its own limits, as thus our limits in understanding, it requires an investment in learning. It calls for time and humility, for a careful reworking of ideas, as well as ideals and possibilities. If education is not really a suitable weapon for fighting the war against terrorism, that should not be a source of shame or a reason to apologize. Nor should we fail to respect those whose work it is to stage such a war against terrorism. May their training stand them in good stead, and protect us all, without exceeding the values we hold dear to a democracy. Yet we need to acknowledge that terrorism is so antithetical to education that one has to fear and distrust the lessons it teaches, about others, ourselves, and the imaginary line that it reinforces between them.


These parochial attacks on multiculturalism have been supplemented from other quarters by no less educationally discouraging attempts to silence postmodern and postcolonial perspectives on the world. Most notable has been, judging from its continuing web presence, Edward Rothstein’s New York Times column eleven days after the attack, “Attacks on U.S. Challenge Postmodern True Believers.” Rothstein found his own consolation and strengthened convictions in thinking that these events would finally put to bed the post-isms of recent years. No more would “pomo” and “poco” types dare to call “the seemingly universalist principles of the West” into question as “ideological constructs.” Here was the heart-wrenching proof of a universal value: “This destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective.”[26] For Rothstein, it was time to set aside such dangerous ideas: “One can only hope that finally, as the ramifications sink in, as it becomes clear how close the attack came to undermining the political, military and financial authority of the United States, the Western relativism of pomo and the obsessive focus of poco will be widely seen as ethically perverse.” And while this destruction did give me pause over my own work with postcolonial theories – is postcolonialism aiding and abetting terrorism and sanctioning a postcolonial backlash?– I remain convinced that postcolonial scholars are above all dedicated to bringing a strong ethical sensibility to imperialism’s continuing legacy of inequality, not least of all as postcolonialism serves as a critical tool for tracing imperialism’s educational legacy in the school curriculum.


For Rothstein to suggest that those who question the world in this way had just better grow up and put away their intellectual toys in these serious, adult times, is obviously to limit education, as he joins those who would line education up behind the political, military and financial authority of the United States. As an immediate response to the attacks on New York and Washington, it may be understandable. Yet to hold that these events should put an end to questioning the projects of modernity, structuralism, and colonialism places serious limitations on the world of learning. What is important about education is its commitment to exploring how such authority is constructed and challenged, bolstered and undermined, often by educational institutions. Now, of course, this critical work can be done badly, dogmatically, obsessively, and each of you may have a favorite pomo or poco instance of intellectual abuse, but postcolonialism done badly is no worse, ideologically speaking, than an education constricted by patriotism, with its echo of the McCarthyist loyalty oaths of yesteryear.


Yet for all of my postcolonial sympathies, I have no objections to Rothstein’s claim that “the very ideas of the Western Enlightenment reason and universality” have led to this belief “that differing perspectives be accounted for and that the other be comprehended,” which so concerns postmodern and postcolonial scholars. To recognize this debt hardly protects the West from charges of having as often betrayed, as lived up to, the ideals of a universal reason. Nor is the study of the West’s historical shortcomings, through the legacy of imperialism, for example, intended to undo these ideals. Such studies may, however, help the West to see that it is misguided in imagining that it alone has an exclusive claim to reason and universality The point is worth pursuing, given the recent invocations of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis to explain September 11. It is worth pursuing as we consider whether education itself can provide the basis for a greater global exchange, a common civil space, that would support, rather than undermine, what we can learn from each other about a way forward.[27]


So we might turn to Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen who a year earlier demonstrated the hollowness of the West’s claim to an “exclusive access,” as Sen puts it, “to the values that lie at the foundation of rationality and reasoning, science and evidence, liberty and tolerance, and of course rights and justice.”[28] Sen has little trouble illustrating the West’s historical short sightedness and the damage this impaired vision continues to do as it only serves to exaggerate the contrasting qualities of other civilizations. Sen holds up the example of Akbar, the Mughal emperor of India, who at the close of the sixteenth century formulated principles of a tolerant acceptance of other cultures based on “the path of reason.” Akbar went on, Sen tells us, to turn the tables on those who adhered to the past: “If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders (and not come with new messages).”


Ray Takeyh, of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, is another who has questioned the easily assumed divisions between Islamic and western cultures.[29] Bringing Sens’ historical commentary up to date, Takeyh speaks of “a new generation of Islamist thinkers, who have sought to legitimize democratic concepts through the reinterpretation of Islamic texts and traditions.” These Islamist moderates, according to Takeyh, seek to increase the role of “certain ‘universal’ democratic values,” even as they “struggle against any form of U.S. hegemony, whether in political or cultural terms.” Takeyh concludes that the “call for a ‘dialogue of civilizations’” made by the Iranian President Muhammad Khatami, “presupposes that there is no single universal standard for judging the effectiveness of democracy and human rights.” Despite Bush’s identification of Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” my hope is that educators can foster such a dialogue around how the schools can support the spread of democracy and human rights. Consider, for example, the former education minister of Tunisia, Mohammed Charfi, who in 1989 initiated educational reform in his country by drawing on the late medieval Moslem thinkers, Averroes and Avicenna, to provide new readings of the Koran and to introduce recent scientific theories, as well as equity issues and democratic thinking, into the curriculum.[30] Education’s global importance lies in its ability to create a sheltered space for these sorts of innovations and exchanges that differs radically from the insular and isolated, protected and removed, image of education that was so badly shaken by September 11. My hope is that this will be a way to move us beyond what our own education has made of us, in search of “new messages,” as Akbar put it, new vocabularies and questions, along the “path of reason.”


Now I recognize that the world has hardly seen the end of Islamic militancy, whether from the surviving remnants of Al Qaeda or the rise of such groups as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.[31] The persistence of these threats, however, only adds to the importance of initiating a global dialogue on education and democracy, whether we draw on the contributions of Sen, Akbar, and Takeyh or follow Kant’s Enlightenment ideals for the rule of public reason and a “cosmopolitan right” that could operate on a global scale, if only in what he called an “infinite process of gradual approximation.”[32] We need an educational channel of hope for the world, one that suggests an alternative to wars of every sort. However, after the fall of the Taliban and at least the initial disappearance of Osama bin Laden, the danger is that professors of education, no less than the rest of the West, will turn away from the global scale of this event and back, in the case of educators, to the classrooms of our respective nations. This, too, would limit education’s horizons and contributions. It would restrict our educational efforts to improving the nation’s schools, rather than seeing that education should be part of a growing global dialogue that might well contribute to the global security that arises from the sharing of such understanding.


You may object that there have always been those among us, working in Western universities, who have pursued this global perspective. And I agree, as I think of Philip G. Altbach, for example, who has spent decades researching the state of higher education in Africa and Asia, and who nearly 25 year ago wrote about those in such settings who faced restricted access to the “institutions that dominate knowledge production” and were barred, in effect, from “free participation in the international intellectual community.”[33] We have only to look for new opportunities of extending this important work, so that whatever our own area of work, it might begin to form part of a more equitable and open international community.


You may still wish to ask how as researchers, we are to lift our eyes to the farthest horizon when we cannot yet handle the schools’ problems in the neighborhoods in which we work. Yet I have come to wonder how we cannot. That is, how can we carefully accumulate the knowledge required to at least begin to resolve an inner-city school’s problems without thinking that this knowledge constitutes a public good that should, as such, be part of a global exchange of educational ideas. Without assuming a single standard for education, there is surely much that we could give and gain, as educators, that would add to the understanding of educational possibilities. Let educators consider how they could open a more cosmopolitan, a more humble rather than hegemonic, multilingual dialogue around this universal value of education.[34]


Consider, for example, that little more than a year ago, some 180 countries signed a declaration calling for “universal education” at the World Education Forum that was held in Dakar, Senegal.[35] Here is a measure that calls out for global exchanges over what we know about teaching and learning. At the moment, some 130 million children between the ages of 6 and 11 do not attend school, according to Oxfam, and another 150 million leave schools with less than four years of instruction. Yet we know that basic forms of education are closely associated with the right to life, as even a little schooling among mothers in the world’s poorest countries increases their chances of seeing their children survive to the age of five. And the education of the young is closely connected to the family’s overall health and prosperity. This concept of universal education, which will obviously require the marshalling of considerable resources, has attracted the support of the World Bank (even as its funding for educational ventures has otherwise declined over the last two years). UNICEF is doing its part through the Girl’s Education Initiative and UNESCO has an Education for All program.[36] A new Asian University for Women is now to be established in Bangladesh which, although not the first college for women, is “committed to exploring and challenging the social, political, cultural and economic structures that have excluded women from actively participating in their societies.”[37]


These developments leave one asking whether the American Educational Research Association (AERA) could do more to support such initiatives. Given its dedication to fostering knowledge about education, it could far more openly share its work as a means of supporting a global dialogue around such initiatives, not in the traditional consultancy role of applied Western expertise, but in an exchange that extended understanding on all sides.


As we believe in both the importance of education, and the need to continually learn more about this critical human process, then this theme of education for all, for the young women of Afghanistan and for indentured child workers in Bangladesh, takes on a certain urgency for an organization like AERA. The first step is to realize that such global collaborations, dialogues, and exchanges of understandings and research improve the state of knowledge about education for all. It would be to recognize that education is far more of a global enterprise than we give it credit for in our own national focus in schooling. It would enable us to see how education could learn from transnational social movements, as forms of “globalization-from-below” and “global civil society,” that are beginning to transform international relations.[38] This would call for an education attuned to global migrations and cosmopolitan cultures that are themselves far more a thing of locally and globally creative forces, than of any particular national influence. It would be an education that takes a greater role in helping people think about the world as more than the competition of nations. It would also encourage others to realize the long, proud history of educators’ supports for American social movements of civil rights and other equity issues that have had broader ramifications globally. If education is present in the events of September 11 that make it seem difficult, if not irresponsible, for it to seek a return to its sheltered, removed-from-the-world, state, then let educators go forward into the world, seeking to establish a different sort of public and protected global space concerned with learning and given to the exchange of ideas.


This will not come easily, of course. For even as the eminence of the nation-state slips, ever so slightly, in the face of globalizing forces, education is still called upon to reassert nationalist claims, as well as religious beliefs in numerous cases. Schools are still viewed as engines of nationalism, having played their earlier part in the formation of European nations, as well as in nationalist independence struggles against colonialism. Yet consider how the response to the events of September 11 offers a decidedly mixed message on the status of the nation-state and the forces of globalization. For all of the flag-waving fervor that this attack has aroused in America itself, it is perhaps the world’s first post-national war, that is, a unilateral declaration of war against something other than a state. Or as Terry Jones has irreverently put it, in a fit of Pythonesque pedanticism: “How do you wage war on an abstract noun? It’s rather like bombing murder.”[39] The United States has treated the countries in the region of Afghanistan not so much as nations but as either criminal weigh-stations and terrorist training campgrounds harboring transnational enemies, or as staging grounds and launch-sites for allied attacks. Still, the postnational war abroad has been used to reassert American nationalism at home, while rejecting those international organizations aimed at cosmopolitan and global forms of governance. America did not turn to the U.N. or invoke concepts of universal jurisdiction, even as it refuses to ratify its support for the International Criminal Court.[40] So America is both contributing to and resisting these globalizing tendencies to reach across traditional boundaries and divisions of nationhood. The world turns, even as it wobbles on its axis.


From an educational perspective, however, the schools’ long-standing nationalist role now seems particularly shortsighted. It could contribute to the mis-education of a generation entering a world increasingly dominated by the transnational forces in finance, telecommunications, and manufacturing, accompanied by an equally transnational shift in jobs and people. Students can already see that they are living within a growing interconnectedness, and many are concerned with the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of globalization, even as they realize that they will probably have to find work within it. Some see the need for increasing democratic participation in government, workplaces, and public spaces as more important than producing cheaper goods and services. What I am asking for is that educational researchers whether through AERA or by other means, give some thought to the structures that extend cooperation across differences and within a global plurality of values and cultures that are often present in their local community.


Before rushing in with nifty suggestions for a more global approach to curriculum, professors of education should turn to their own work. It is no less important to ask how our scholarship on education contributes to globalizing a public space for sharing ideas about a universal value like education. How can our universities, scholarly organizations, journals, and funding agencies begin to address these global connections by forming a pluralist public sphere for educational dialogues, of the sort that political philosopher James Bohman argues “renews and expands democracy.”[41] Whether through research networks or collaborations, whether with old or new technologies, we need to find ways of expanding the public space dedicated to sharing this public good.


While a number of universities and publishing outfits see these new technologies as a way to open new markets for their courses and information services, this is not what I have in mind. Rather, I am thinking more along the lines of AERA’s initiative to make Educational Researcher freely available online, or the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications which sponsors journals in an effort to overcome the isolation and decline of African scholarly publishing efforts.[42] To further the open and free exchange among educational scholars worldwide could constitute our contribution to globalization, as well as enable an assessment of research’s contribution to development, security, and peace. It would extend our concept of the public sphere, in effect, to the exchange of educational ideas, first of all among the global university community, but then with new structures, with policymakers, media, and the wider public, also on this global scale, which is the current focus of my work. It would lend credence and substance to education’s universal aspects through the plurality of forms represented in the research. It would link it with other transnational social movements, in this case, for the educational benefit of the young and the not-so-young.


You can see that for all of the limits considered here, to speak of education is to come across the message of hope within it. It is a hope that learning will not only extend who we are and expand how we know the world, it can make something more, something finer, of the world itself. Education is at root about an openness, a reaching out, into the world – whether in a strictly secular or religiously orthodox sense – and as such, education stands in sharp contrast to terrorism and war. What is important about education does not lie in how it can prepare us against terrorism, or even in how it can help us to understand the soul of terrorism. What is important is how the spirit of openness and drive to know that marks education can, on occasion, overcome the erosion of trust and oppression of fear that otherwise limits its possibilities. Such is the lesson that I would draw from the revelations of brave Afghan women who, defying the educational limits of the Taliban state, sought to teach their daughters and other children in their homes. 


Western education is haunted by its own striking images of learning and risk. Socrates meets his educational fate without flinching, having been convicted of teaching the young only too well to question assumptions of authority, in ways that might perhaps have drawn a newspaper columnist’s wrath. And then there is the death of Archimedes, after he made the fatal mistake of telling a Roman soldier, who had just ordered him to move, to stand aside from the geometric diagrams he had made in the sand in his efforts to solve a mathematical problem. “Having fixed his mind alike and his eye upon the subject of his speculation,” as Plutarch puts it, Archimedes failed to realize that the Romans had finally overrun his Sicily, after his learned inventions had done much to defend it.


We are no safer with our own education, especially in times of historical trauma – may future traumas be few, if not none, for each of us. Education does offer its own limited defense and defiance against the unknowing, and it offers a sustaining hope for overcoming the trauma, as education’s own openness to the world returns, like water to a river bed in spring. Such is the importance of education after September 11, as I see it. This greater openness and exchange around education, on a global scale, may or may not be facilitated by new technologies, a prospect that a number of us are testing with some earnestness.[43] Much has still to be considered and worked out on how best to go global, whether as individual researchers or as a professional organization like AERA. It is hard to imagine ways of moving beyond existing models, whether Peace Corp service or World Bank contracts, toward more equitable exchanges and engagements with each other. Let that be the very starting point for initiating such conversations and exchanges. For all I know is that education stands as a universal concern, a potential space for global hope, which is bound to find its expression in many different forms, and that the very sharing of our work and our openness to the work of others will challenge the veil of ignorance that keeps people from recognizing their responsibilities to each other. We will not reach the madrasa steeped in anti-American sentiments. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine militant Islam as the defining force of Islamic education. There is reason to hope that we realize a greater sense of common cause and concern within what is, after all, a global if diffuse system of teacher education programs and universities. Think of the programs beginning again at Kabul University or the new Asian University for Women that will not only add to the universal quality of education, but help us better understand our own work, as we come to think of it against a far broader canvas of educational interests.


The goal of this expanded openness and exchange cannot be a consensus or convergence over what is most important or valued about education. We cannot find that within the corridors of our own workplaces. The goal is more educational than that, insofar as it pursues exchange and understanding as forms of cooperation and community.  Our hope should be that such a dialogue will move education away, if only slightly, from being national and religious instruments, setting it within a far more global and universal space of concern with how it is we learn to be in this world. Such a dialogue is needed if we are to address the image and reality of education as a source of hate and borders, turning it more thoroughly as a source of hope and common cause. It is needed to ensure that this exchange over education grows more open, equitable and deliberative in its very structures and in the regard paid to difference. Such are my hopes, such my educational ideals. As educational scholars and leaders, we will first need to overstep the limits of our own education, with, for example, its traditional focus on the nation. We will need to expand both our sense of the professional community around education and our sense of what constitutes and concerns, more generally, the public sphere. Only then can we begin to see how our work can do more for, and can take more from, the global scale of education’s ultimate importance.




As the one non-American on the AERA panel addressing “September 11 and the Importance of Education” organized by Reba Page and Lauren Sosniak, I need to acknowledge what is surely apparent -I am more than a little unqualified to represent the rest of the world. My presence makes apparent the limits to this conversation about education and the need to open it to other voices.  But then what sort of Canadian perspective have I offered, except to cite the New Yorker, New York Times, and New York Review of Books, with the sub rosa footnotes to the text running like a New York subway line stopping at the stations of its assuming literate press.  This is one Canadian’s tribute to a New York City of the Mind, revealing how we cling to the well-traveled paths of our own education, in a limit to our learning that warrants consideration. My hope is that we will look more often than before for ways of opening and expanding this conversation about education, to share what we know and what we have yet to learn with a greater part of the globe, moving out from under the limits and hegemonies of our own not-yet cosmopolitan educations.



1.       Erik Eckholm, “In Kandahar, a Top School Reopens and Girls Are Welcome,” New York Times, December 23, 2001, B1.

2.       Amy Waldman, “Young Women Back in School,” New York Times, 9 January 2002. The official opening of the schools will not be until March 22, 2002, preceded by the hiring 50,000-60,000 teachers and enrolling 500,000 girls who were not part previously on the rolls; Mark Landler, “Rebuilding the Land looks More Costly Than Was Thought,” New York Times, 21 January 2002, A9

3.       Ibid.

4.       Thomas L. Friedman, “Terrorism Game Theory,” New York Times, 25 September 2001.

5.       Dexter Filkins, “The Legacy of the Taliban is a Sad and Broken Land,” New York Times, 31 December 2001, A1.

6.       “The Year in Pictures: Drumbeat for War,” New York Times, 31 December 2001, 21.

7.       Daniel Del Castillo, “Pakistan's Islamic Colleges Provide the Taliban's Spiritual Fire,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 September 2001, A19.

8.       Erik Eckholm, “Struggle to Control What Islamic Schools Teach,” New York Times, 15 January 2001, A9. 

9.       Erik Eckholm, “Pakistan Pledges To Bar any Groups Linked to Terrorists,” New York Times, 13 January 2001, A1, A11.

10.    Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon, “A Failure of Intelligence,” New York Review of Books, 20 December 2001, 76-81.

11.    Fred Rogers with Hedda Bluestone Sharapan, “Helping Children Deal with Violence in the News,” cited in the New York Times Magazine, 2 December 2001, 43.

12.    Joyce Carol Oates, “Words Fail, Memory Blurs, Life Wins,” New York Times, 31 December 2001, A17.

13.    The Times also ran a series of full-page self-promotional ads in the months following the attack that featured the America-affirming paintings of Norman Rockwell. The caption,  modestly set at the bottom of the page, was “Make sense of our times” (although the Times’ far pushier New-Yorker-ish Expect the World was beneath it). Most relevant for this paper was Rockwell’s painting of an elementary school teacher, in her gray flannel dress and white blouse, standing beside a blackboard covered in the children’s birthday greetings that had been updated with a school map of Afghanistan hanging on the blackboard (12 November 2001, p. E8). The Rockwellian days are still a part of who we are, the ads seem to suggest, and yet we need to get down to lessons on the blood-red borderlines dividing up this distant world now intruding on our once-simpler lives. Amid this solemn reminder of what has changed, one was grateful to find that the child sitting in the second row had a chalk brush carefully balanced on his head.

14.    Theodor Adorno, Prisms (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 34. He later wrote: “I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric...[But] literature must resist this verdict... It is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it” (cited by Eric L. Santner's “History Beyond the Pleasure Principle: Some Thoughts on the Representation of Trauma,” Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. Saul Friedlander (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 144. I owe this second Adorno citation to Philip Sherburne’s thoughtful column “Does Electronic Music Matter?” Needle Drops, 20 September 2001l; available at http://www.neumu.net/needledrops/data/00006_needledrops.shtml.

15.    Mary Karr, “Negotiating the Darkness, Fortified by Poet’s Strength,” New York Times, 14 January 2002, B1, B2.

16.    Paul Celan, “There Was Earth Inside Them,” Poems of Paul Celan, Trans. Michael Hamburger (New York: Persea Books, 1988), 153.

17.    George Steiner, “Preface,” in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman, (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1970), viii.

18.    Ibid., ix.

19.    George Steiner, “Humane Literacy,” in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman, (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1970), 5.

20.    Ibid., 11.

21.    Margaret Talbot, “Other Woes,” New York Times Magazine, 18 November 2001, 23.

22.    Dan Curry, “Education Secretary Says Universities Are Critical to National Security,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 November 2001.

23.    On the legislative suspension of civil liberties, see the American Civil Liberties Union analysis of the USA Patriot Act 2001, available at http://www.aclu.org/congress/l102301e.html, and on military tribunals, available at http://www.aclu.org/news/2001/n111401b.html.

24.    Anemona Hartocollis, CUNY Chief Repudiates Forum Remarks,” New York Times, 4 October 2001, D3; Henry Giroux reviews additional instances of educational censuring in Democracy, Freedom, and Justice after September 11th: Rethinking the Role of Educators and the Politics of Schooling” Teachers College Record, 16 January 2002. Available at http://www.tcrecord.org. Also see Jerry L. Martin and Anne D. Neal, Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It (Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2002) Available at http://www.goacta.org/Reports/defciv.pdf. In response to September 11, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has established a Defense of Civilization Fund that will “support and defend the study of American history and civics and of Western Civilization.”

25.    Karen Birchard, “U. of British Columbia Stands Behind Professor Who Blasted U.S. Foreign Policy,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 October 2001. Available at http://chronicle.com/free/2001/10/2001100408n.htm. For a transcript of Sunera Thobani’s speech to the Ottawa Women’s Resistance Conference on October 1, 2001, see http://www.terminalcity.com/terminalcity/1003130821/index_html. For her response to the ensuing controversy, see http://www.zmag.org/thobanireplies.htm.

26.    Edwards Rothstein, “Attack on US Challenges Postmodern True Believers,” New York Times, 22 September 2000.

27.    Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993), 22-28: “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines” (22). In response, see Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” Nation, 22 October 2001; available at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20011022&c=1&s=said.: “The personification of enormous entities called ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’ is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world.”

28.    Amartya Sen, “East and West: The Reach of Reason” New York Review of Books, 20 July  2000, 33 38.

29.    Ray Takeyh, “Faith-Based Initiatives: Can Islam Bring Democracy to the Middle East?” Foreign Policy, (January/February 2002). Available at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/issue_novdec_2001/takeyh.html.

30.    Charfi’s regret is that the government itself has yet “to make the political system more democratic” in ways that reflect the progress made in the schools; Mohamed Charfi, “Reaching the Next Muslim Generation,” New York Times, 12 March 2002, p. A29.

31.    On the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, see Ahmed Rashid, “They’re Only Sleeping,” New Yorker, 14 January 2002, 34-41.

32.    Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” in Kant: Political Writings, Ed. Hans Reiss, Trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1970), 128, 130.

33.    Philip G. Altbach (1982). The Distribution of Knowledge in the Third World: A Case Study in Neocolonialism (orig. 1978), in Higher Education in the Third World: Themes and Variations. Singapore: Maruen Asia, p. 87.

34.    Among those who have written about the recruiting for suicide terrorism. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit identify among the possible recruits “the young man who feels mocked by the indifference of a superior West,” and I fear that although such young men will not see the indifferent superiority that marks our research in education, his teachers may well have; “Occidentalism,” New York Review of Books, 17 January 2002, 6.

35.    Gene B. Sperling, “Toward Universal Education,” Foreign Affairs (September/October 2001: 7-14.  This paragraph draws on my “Postcolonial Access to Knowledge:  What are Our Responsibilities?” in Postcolonialism and Education: Challenging Canons and Disrupting Traditions, Ed. D. Melunga  (New York: Palgrave, in press), where I treat the topic of postcolonial access to educational research in some detail.

36.    Ibid.

37.    See the Asian University for Women (http://www.asianuniversity.net/)

38.    Valentine M. Moghadam uses these phrases in relation to feminist transnational movements; see http://wwics.si.edu/fellows01/moghadam/moghadam.htm. Also see Robin Cohen, “Transnational Social Movements,” paper presented at the Transnational Communities Programme (Oxford, UK: University of Oxford, 1998) available at http://www.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/CSGR/coh-ken.pdf.

39.    Terry Jones, Why Grammar Is The First Casualty of War,” Telegraph, 1 December 2001.

40.    On universal jurisdiction, see Kenneth Roth, “The Case for Universal Jurisdiction,” Foreign Affairs (September / October 2001), 150-154. The Treaty establishing the court has 59 of the 60 required nations ratifying it, as I write, while Bush strongly opposes the court and refuses to send it to the Senate for ratification because of Pentagon fears that it would be used against Americans carrying out “missions” abroad; Barbara Crossette, “World Court for War Crimes Inches Closer to Reality,” New York Times, 26 March 2002, p. A6.

41.    James Bohman discusses this sense of the public sphere in the context of Kant’s cosmopolitan ideal for achieving perpetual peace: “An emerging cosmopolitan public renews and expands democracy in two ways: via the pluralistic public sphere in each state, and through the informal network of communication among the organizations and associations that constitute an international civil society”; “The Public Spheres of the World Citizen,” in Perpetual Peace: Essays on Kant’s Cosmopolitan  Ideal Eds. James Bohman and Matthias Lutz-Bachmann (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 191.

42.    See AERA list of online, peer reviewed, free full-text education journals (http://aera-cr.ed.asu.edu/links.html), and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (http://www.inasp.org.uk/). On the decline of African journals, amid growing interest among African scholars in such forums, see A. A. Alemna, Vitalicy Chifwepa, and Diana Rosenberg, “African Journals: An Evaluation of the Use of African-published Journals in African Universities Evaluating Impact,” Education Research Paper No. 36, 1999. Available at http://www.dfid.gov.uk/AboutDFID/Education/Research/Library/contents/c0173e/begin.htm.

43.    See the Public Knowledge Project (http://pkp.ubc.ca). Also, for example, John Willinsky, “Postcolonial access to knowledge: What are our responsibilities?” in Postcolonialism and education: Challenging canons and disrupting traditions, Ed. D. Melunga (New York: Palgrave, in press).



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 03, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11030, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 11:26:50 AM

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  • John Willinsky
    University of British Columbia
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    John Willinsky is a professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia, where he directs the Public Knowledge Project (http://pkp.ubc.ca).
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