Sunday, April 23, 2006

DuBois, Chilembwe, and critical theory in education

From April 7 to April 11, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) held its annual conference at the Moscone Center, in downtown San Fransisco, USA. One of the panels that I attended at the conference was dedicated to a discussion of the state of critical theory today. Not since I started situating my work in critical theories informed by pan-Africanist ideals and the visions of the African Renaissance, has it occurred to me that there are historical and international connections amongst the work of WEB DuBois, John Chilembwe’s anti-imperialist struggle in the early 1900s that paved the way for Malawi's independence, and the way forward for education in Malawi and other societies working toward peace and social justice.

The AERA is the largest association for educational researchers in North America. Its annual conference attracts upwards of 10,000 people from North America and other places, including researchers, professors, publishers, classroom practitioners, and graduate students. This year marked my first attendance at the AERA, where I presented a paper, adapted from chapter 5 of my dissertation, in the Peace Education special interest group (SIG).

The panelists in the discussion on critical theory included Peter McLaren, Michael Apple, Joe Kincheloe, Elizabeth Heilman, Gert Biesta, and Wendy Kohli. I sat right upfront so I could get a better view of the panel.

Peter McLaren pointed out two things that schools of education tend to ignore today: the Marxist roots of critical pedagogy, and class exploitation. He also addressed recent criticisms that dismiss Marxism as “universalizing”, “totalizing”, “too economistic” and “deterministic”, saying for him, the goal has always been the achievement of a socialist society.

Of the most significance for the purposes of this blog, and for my intellectual politics, framed within the visions of pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance, were the remarks by Joe Kincheloe who, as of January 1st, 2006, has joined McGill University, in Canada, from the City University if New York Graduate Center. Professor Kincheloe started by pointing out how predominatly “white” and “male” the panel was. While there were two females on the panel, all the panelists were white. He particularly singled out the absence of blacks on the panel, and thanked the Asians, Latin Americans, and Blacks who were part of the overflowing, standing-room-only audience. Kincheloe’s main point was that discussions in critical pedagogy don’t resonate with African Americans, which he sees as a problem. The North American academy, to paraphrase Kincheloe’s words, has appropriated Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy in the Brazilian and global Southern context, and made it an agenda for white people. What has been ignored in the process are voices like those of W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson, who, even before the Frankfurt School, credited with the origination of critical theory, were already talking about issues of critical pedagogy back in the late 1800s. Kincheloe called Du Bois the father of critical pedagogy, and said when voices like his, and those of other African Americans were being silenced in the discourses on critical theory, something was seriously wrong.

I have been reading about, and using critical theory, in my own work for some years now, yet this was the first time I was hearing anybody make connections between DuBois and critical theory. The work of DuBois, who was born in 1868, in Massachussetts, USA, and died in 1963, in Ghana, is as relevant today in the 21st century as it was at the turn of the 19th century when he declared, with stunning prescience, that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. DuBois’s critical insights into the evils and consequences of racism on black people worldwide provided a much-needed impetus for pan-Africanism, one of whose greatest achievements was the dismantling of colonialism. The telling moment for this fact came when Dr. DuBois renounced his US citizenship, and adopted Ghana as his country, where he lived until his death.

Of direct relevance to Malawi’s struggle for independence was the prevalence of Dr. DuBois’s ideas and writings at the turn of the 20th century, the period that John Chilembwe, the first African to lead an uprising against colonialism and imperialism in the area that is now Malawi, was studying in the USA. According to Shepperson and Price’s (1958) extensive and comprehensive biography of Chilembwe, “although no evidence exists of Chilembwe’s reading in the United States,” it is reasonable to suppose that Chilembwe knew about DuBois while studying in the United States, and even when he returned to the then Nyasaland, where he continued receiving publications by black Americans. Today, there is little evidence in Malawi, let alone other African countries, of the ideals that Chilembwe, DuBois and other pan-African leaders fought for a hundred years ago. The Malawian school curriculum has contained a sanitized version of Chilembwe’s nationalism, with no connection to the bigger pan-African context, and its role in framing social justice struggles for black Americans.

The African Renaissance and its pan-African ideals need to become a part of not just the curriculum in primary, secondary and tertiary education, but also of the daily struggles ordinary Malawians face. Different individuals and institutions play different roles in enacting a country’s visions, and my part has been working with primary school teachers and students. Other areas in need of immediate attention include the media, in which our newspapers and electronic media need to engage more Malawians, in languages they use everyday, in discussing where we are coming from, where we are headed, and the importance of joining hands with other African societies, and societies who share our ideals, around the world.