Education and Empire

I value education.  I have learned a lot from my education.  I continue to learn a lot from educational institutions (and am happy that I work at a university).  But all that being said, I think it’s really important to be critical of the ways in which education is sometimes kinda the worst.  Most certainly a site of normalization, educational institutions are also imperial in metaphoric and not metaphoric ways (i.e. their authority is imperial in metaphoric ways–converting experience into standardized writing, generic conventions, etc–but also they literally serve American empire through their research, teaching, and implicit whiteness).

Which is why I’m finding reading nineteenth-century debates about education so fascinating.  For one, the power structures are far more explicit–there aren’t a lot of nods to unlimited access to schools or equality of opportunity.  Moreover, they reveal how education serves empire in quite material ways–like, one of the things colleges are supposed to do is prepare people for the civil service exam that will allow them to go to India.  But despite this explicitness, there’s still a real belief in education as something that will bring progress, improvement, and, in some cases, democracy.

One gem that I found is an 1837 article that takes up the claim that aging academics everywhere continue to tout: academics should be useless. Knowing that they’re useless will prevent them from weighing in to political debates too soon, or confusing their commitment to learning ancient things with knowledge about the more fluid interests of the day.  As much as I like this argument in terms of what it says about labor time (and dreaded Digital Measures), I question it because it leads to the following conclusion:

“No scheme of national education can be conceived without such a system as this – a system which is virtually a body politic – an empire in itself” (447).

The university as an empire of uselessness!  So, in order to buy into the uselessness argument, you need imperial subjects (i.e. students) who comprise a body politic, but–importantly–are not citizens in this body politic.