Postcolonial studies and student activism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun May 28 09:46:10 MDT 2000

The New York Times, May 27, 2000, Saturday, Late Edition - Final

New Activists Are Nurtured By Politicized Curriculums


It was no surprise to find students among the union activists,
environmentalists and church groups protesting the policies of the World
Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund in Seattle and
Washington in recent months. After all, whether the cause has been union
organizing, the antiwar movement or a nuclear freeze, college students have
been a fixture at demonstrations for decades.

What is new is that many professors and students see a link between this
latest generation of activists and the overtly political courses that have
been added to college curriculums in recent years. Postcolonial studies --
an attempt to look at the legacy left by the major powers on the developing
world -- seem to be a frequent reference point.

"Postcolonial studies have helped students understand issues such as
political asylum, immigration, the prison industrial complex and human
rights," said Barbara Harlow, who teaches English at the University of
Texas. "Postcolonialism has enhanced the intellectual base and helped make
academia self-conscious about its place in national and international
politics. It has raised the hopes for a new radicalism."

Purnima Bose, an assistant professor in the English department at Indiana
University in Bloomington, agrees. "We have a generation of undergraduate
activists we did not have a year ago," she said.

Ms. Bose helped revamp her department's program two years ago to include
works that are considered classics by postcolonial scholars. She said many
of her students had joined campus activist groups that protested the NATO
bombing of Kosovo, the sanctions against Iraq or the use of sweatshop labor.

Jason Mark, a 25-year-old spokesman for Global Exchange who took part in
the demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, said he was influenced by the
professors who taught postcolonialism when he was a student at Georgetown

The political edge to such courses infuriates critics. Harold Bloom, a
literary critic who teaches at Yale and New York University, said that
postcolonial studies were part of a larger movement that embraces gender
studies and the new historicism and is infected with "the disease of

"All aesthetic and cognative standards have been overturned in favor of
this ideological prejudgment," said Mr. Bloom. "They have taken over
positions of power within the academy. They are zealots, commissars. They
have severely wounded humanistic education in the English-speaking world."

But postcolonial scholars make no apologies for the political context of
their work. "It does represent a political viewpoint, but that is not a bad
thing since everything does anyway," Ms. Harlow said. "It contributes to
setting the record straight."

Homi K. Bhabha, a professor at the University of Chicago and a leading
expert in the field, said: "This kind of work is changing the way the
academy sees its role in the outside world and the way activist
organizations deal with cultural issues like domestic abuse, film and

"At one point, students did this through the Peace Corps," he said. "Now
they do this through courses. The academy has brought social justice areas
in a global context into the classroom."

The field of postcolonial studies arose in the 1980's. Many of the
professors were involved in nationalist or leftist liberation movements
supporting causes like divestment in South Africa, guerrillas in El
Salvador and the Palestinians. They were committed to shifting the
traditional perspective, looking at the world from the vantage point of the
losers instead of the winners. For example, Edward Said's 1979 book
"Orientalism," which harshly criticized Western scholars as having a
distorted view of Arabs or the Muslim Orient, became a seminal work.

Surprisingly, the primary home for postcolonial studies was not political
science, but literature. One of the most important early essays of the
postcolonial movement was "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of
Imperialism," which Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a professor in the English
and comparative literature department at Columbia University, wrote in 1984.

Ms. Spivak, who was born in India, looked at Charlotte Bronte's "Jane
Eyre," Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" and Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein"
from the perspective of the colonized. She attacked Bronte and readers who
held up Jane as a feminist ideal, exalting her at the expense of
Rochester's mad Creole bride Bertha, who is confined in the attic. Ms.
Spivak argued that this was a tacit acceptance by the British of the
systematic repression of colonial subjects: that it was on the back of
Bertha that Jane Eyre rose to domestic supremacy.

"I was not interested so much in criticizing Charlotte Bronte as I was in
showing how the greatest talents become victims of their time," Ms. Spivak

That essay unleashed similar exercises. Professors began to examine what it
meant for Othello to be a Moor, and the notion of political asylum in "The
Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Ms. Bose said that Indiana University's English department had dropped its
three-semester survey course in English literature, replacing it with works
that chart the spread of English in relationship to empire. Novels like
"Sitt Marie Rose" by Etel Adnan, "Cracking India" by Bapsi Sidhwa and "Last
Night Another Soldier" by Aly Renwick have became required reading. "There
is initially a good deal of resistance to this literature because it is so
outside the experience of these students," Dr. Bose said. "They often want
to pathologize people in these countries as being more prone to conflict.
But the literature sucks them in. They identify with the characters and
start to question the information they get from the mainstream media."

But even practitioners concede that at times such scholarship has been
hobbled by its advocacy role. The voice of the persecuted, of what was
referred to as the "authentic" underclass, has often been rigidly defined
and used to drown out dissenters. Many got caught up in the identity wars
that consumed various ethnic, racial and gender groups over the last decade.

"The search and quest for authenticity became a tyranny," said Mr. Bhabha.

Meanwhile, as the national liberation movements took power or dissipated in
countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua, so did the utopian visions of
their advocates. The focus, for those following the struggles of
postcolonial nations, shifted from supporting leftist political movements
to supporting the work of nongovernmental institutions like Human Rights
Watch or Doctors Without Borders. The old models, the struggle between East
and West or the colonists and the colonized, have evaporated.

"It was a major shift," said Dr. Harlow. "There was a sense of loss.
Solidarity work sustained us for a long time. We are trying to work out a
new political space."

Many of today's students are aware of the activist past of their teachers.

"Most of our professors are speaking about the damage that is caused by
globalization," said Hannah Cole, 21, a senior at Yale who took part in the
demonstrations during the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington
in April and is one of the leaders of the Student Alliance to Reform

"A lot of these professors are former activists," Ms. Cole said.
"Professors openly critical of big corporate structures risk getting fired
or losing their funding, but they try to transmit the passion they once had
to us."

Louis Proyect
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