UBC-based author of:
Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End (University of Minnesota Press 1999)
Technologies of Knowing: A Proposal for the Human Species (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999)
If only we knew: increasing the public value of social science research (Routledge, 2000)
After literacy: essays. New York, Peter Lang, 2001.
Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End (University of Minnesota Press $22.95 U.S.)
That’s the motivating premise for John Willinsky’s Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End (University of Minnesota Press $22.95 U.S.).
The UBC education professor’s far-ranging critique of imperalism’s influence on education includ a chapter on literature’s role as a colonizing force. In particular, Willinsky provides a dense evaluation of Northrop Frye’s role as the country’s most widely esteemed literary critic, including Native author Lee Maracle’s complaint about mainstream Canada’s post-colonial garrison mentality.
“Canadian writers still hover about the gates of the old forts,” says Maracle, “peek[ing] through the cracks of their protective ideological walls.”
Most disturbing is Willinsky’s chapter called Imperial Show-Show-And-Tell. “Travel, as a way of finding oneself through a great knowledge of the other,” he writes, “brings us to perhaps the busiest intersections between education and imperialism.”
Willinsky charts the practices of bringing ‘exotic’ natives back to imperial Europe for display. After encountering the (now extinct) Arawak natives on the island presently known as Cuba, Columbus commented about his intention to “bring back half a dozen of them to their Majesties, so that they can learn how to speak... “And I believe that they would easily be made Christians, for they appeared to me to have no religion.”
Columbus took his captives back to Spain and paraded them through the streets. The Arawak who was kept at the Spanish court is said to have expired of sadness after two years had passed. But according to Willinsky, the ‘most monstrous’ instance of the nineteenth-century spectacle was the exhibition and dissection of Saarjie Baartman, a Xhosa from South Africa.
In 1810, at the age of 16, she was brought to London, where she was shown as the ‘Hottentot Venus.’ “Her steatopygia, or protruding buttocks, were the principal focus of attention. They were thought to identify a primitive level of sexuality, and they became the subject of cartoons and vaudeville plays.”
After nine years of exhibitionary life in London and Paris, Baartman succumbed to smallpox. Detailed autopsy reports were published by zoologist George Cuvier, founder of comparative anatomy, comparing her ‘organ of regeneration’ with that of the female orangutan.
This focus on Baartman’s genitalia—supposedly for educational purposes—led to their preservation and presentation to the French Royal Academy of Medicine. “Her ‘Hottentot apron’, as it came to be known, served as an icon of African perversity, deformation and pathology.” writes Willinsky, “It was a projection of primitive sexual appetite and lack of moral turpitude that bore anatomical comparison with the assumed deformities suffered by prostitutes and lesbians.”
Learning to Divide the World recently won the 1998 Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Researchers Association. Willinsky is Pacific Press Professor of Literacy and Technology at UBC. 0-8166-3076-3
[BCBW SUMMER 1999]