don’t name things Western but call out imperialism

The word “Western” is often appended to ideas and institutions, sometimes to praise them and sometimes to bury them. I almost always find this terminology fuzzy and unhelpful. On the other hand, imperialism and colonialism are evils that are important to name and combat.

Two of the topics that I follow regularly these days are education and Ukraine. Both supply examples of problematic uses of the term “Western” and real examples of imperialism.

A manuscript that I read recently described the radical Brazilian educator Paolo Freire as a critic of “Western” approaches to education, meaning hierarchical and authoritarian pedagogies. When I searched Freire’s major works, I did not find the words “West ” or “Western” used in relevant ways, but I did find articles that concur in describing Freire’s pedagogy as an alternative “to the traditional Western ‘banking’ model of education in which an authority ‘deposits’ knowledge into a student” (Bhargava et al 2016). I also found some articles that decry the “North American and Western appropriations of Freire’s work and thought,” which ostensibly ignore Freire’s “anti-colonial and postcolonial” agenda (Giroux 1992). Finally, I encountered a burgeoning recent literature that criticizes Freire’s “Western assumptions” and argues that “the Freirian approach to empowerment is really a disguised form of colonization” (Bowers & Appfel-Marglin 2004, p. 2). In some of this literature, Freire is described explicitly and critically as a “Western” thinker.

There is a parallel debate about how to classify Freire’s influences. Sol Stern complains that “Freire isn’t interested in the Western tradition’s leading education thinkers—not Rousseau, not Piaget, not John Dewey, not Horace Mann, not Maria Montessori.” Douglas Kellner classifies Freire and Ivan Illich as “critics of classical Western education.” But many other analysts trace pervasive echoes of Rousseau and Dewey in Freire. Insofar as Freire was a Marxist–well, Karl Marx was a Western thinker.

Meanwhile, the Russian right-wing theorist, Alexander Dugin (who apparently inspires Putin) writes, “We need to unite all the forces that are opposed to Western norms. … Therefore, we must create strategic alliances to overthrow the present order of things, of which the core could be described as human rights, anti-hierarchy, and political correctness – everything that is the face of the Beast, the anti-Christ or, in other terms, Kali-Yuga.”

For Dugin, to oppose natural hierarchy in a classroom or elsewhere is “Western”–and that is a very bad thing. Dugin is willing to make alliances with Jihadists, Hindu nationalists, European neofascists, and anyone who will stand against the hegemonic liberal norms of “the West.” This a justification for the Russian war in Ukraine.

Note how “Western” is used as a token of appraisal (Stern) or condemnation (Dugin), and how many meanings it takes on.

What does it actually mean? Plato was “Western.” He lived in Europe; his name comes first on many syllabuses for “Western philosophy.” He advocated (possibly with irony) a radically authoritarian educational system. He proposed various dualisms and believed in objective truths. He has been at least as influential in Islam as in Christianity and Judaism, and therefore as influential in Tehran and Dakar as in New York and Moscow.

Dewey was also “Western.” He was a White man from Vermont. He opposed all dualisms, wanted to make education radically democratic, and saw truth as co-constructed. He had a fruitful sojourn in China.

Freire was born even further west than Dewey and wrote in Portuguese. His influences were mostly European writers. The three men share some vocabulary and had similar roles as teachers, writers, and political advisors, but many other people whom we could also classify as Western thinkers did not. The West has generated aesthetes, engineers, hermits, mystics, revolutionaries, and reactionaries. People who figure on canonical lists of Western thinkers have lived and written in places like Damascus and Alexandria, Rio and Mexico City, and Moscow and Kolkata as well as Paris and London. It is impossible to draw a border around the West on any map.

We should say what we’re for and against, and why. It rarely adds any value to append the adjective “Western” to these things. However, the concepts of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism are much sharper, and they reflect the global trauma of European conquest after 1492. Colonialism has been a highly concrete, material experience, not a set of abstract ideas. Indeed, the colonizers have been intellectually diverse and have sometimes shared ideas with people who resist colonialism.

Importantly, Russia was a major participant in European imperialism and exploitation, not a victim of it.

Sources: Bhargava, Rahul, Ricardo Kadouaki, Emily Bhargava, Guilherme Castro, and Catherine D’Ignazio. “Data murals: Using the arts to build data literacy.” The Journal of Community Informatics, 12, no. 3 (2016); Giroux, Henry A. “Paulo Freire and the politics of postcolonialism.” Journal of Advanced Composition (1992): 15-26. Bowers, Chet A. & Appfel-Marglin, F. (eds) Re-thinking Freire: Globalization and the environmental crisis. Routledge, 2004. See also: to whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of coloravoiding the labels of East and Westwhen East and West were oneon modernity and the distinction between East and West; who says that binary thinking is Western?; two cheers for the West; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.