Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Humanism, Postcolonialism, and Education

  • Stephen Chatelier
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_184



It is not unreasonable to claim that humanism has been, and perhaps continues to be, a foundational principle for education. While it may be the case that fewer scholars and teachers would explicitly refer to humanism in the contemporary era, traces of its influence can be seen in the ideals and commitments expressed by educators from the early childhood through to the tertiary sector. Schools that promote themselves as developing their students holistically, as persons, are just one example of this. However, humanism has encountered a range of critiques since the burgeoning in the 1960s of structuralist and poststructuralist theories. This entry will seek to outline some of the ways in which postcolonial theory has critically engaged with humanism and the effects of this for education. Though it is a term widely used, humanism, ultimately, cannot be neatly defined. Any attempt to do so would be to fix it in an ahistorical space. But humanism has always been historically located and, therefore, constituted. Subsequently, to begin to be able to approach humanism as a concept within the field of education, it is necessary to historicize it however brief and incomplete the task maybe. Indeed, it is only through a historical framework that one can understand the postcolonial engagement with humanism. It is the case that humanism has been interpreted in different ways in various times and spaces. Yet, as it relates to the understanding of education and knowledge today, it is Western notions of humanism that have been most prominent and will therefore be the focus of this article.

History of Humanism

It is generally agreed that humanism goes back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks. Even at this early stage, humanism was implicated in the thinking and practice of education. The classical humanism of Plato and Aristotle enunciated education as having a civilizing function and that knowledge was intrinsic to the concept of the good. There was no need to qualify education as “humanistic” because education as person-centered development of intellectual character for the sake of the good was implicit and assumed. Indeed, this early form of classical humanism that prioritizes the cultivation of the self can be seen also in Confucian and Islamic humanisms (Goodman 2003). Classical humanism tended to be very much focused on how individual moral cultivation, especially through virtuous living, would lead to the civilizing of humanity. To think of Plato’s Phaedo here is instructive. Education should help the individual to ensure that the rational part of the self overcomes the irrational, eros-driven part of the self. Importantly, though, this self-cultivation does not merely have its end in the individual, but for the common good. Both the idea of self-cultivation and the ethical orientation toward human flourishing, understood in historically contingent ways, are characteristic of various humanisms over a long period of time.

Over the last 200 years, Western humanism has largely revolved around the contrasting perspectives of the great Enlightenment philosophers, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). These two philosophers can be used as examples of the different emphasis that can be given to either the individual or the common good within humanistic thinking. The following Kantian assertion links the education of the individual with the betterment of humanity: “… children ought to be educated, not for the present, but for a possibly improved condition of man in the future; that is, in a manner which is adapted to the idea of humanity and the whole destiny of man” (1960, p. 14).

Kant’s more macro understanding of humanistic education can be contrasted with Rousseau’s greater focus on the individual.

The philosophical anthropology which drove Rousseau’s thinking was that each human is constituted by an inherent self that needs to be developed through the process of education. A Rousseau-inspired education would seek to elicit the goodness out of the child, helping them to grow through their own natural engagement with the world around them. But just as it would be unfair to ignore Kant’s focus on the development of the individual self, it would be unfair to completely extract a larger vision from the goals of Rousseau’s philosophy of education. Boyd (2009) suggests that the kind of child-centered education found in Rousseau’s Emile has as its aim “the making of good human beings and through them of a good society” (p. 250). Nevertheless, it can be argued that the emphasis of this humanistic education is on the individual human, thus leaving the creation of a better society as a secondary consequence.

Within the field of education in more recent times, however, critical pedagogues such as Paulo Freire, Peter McLaren, and Henry Giroux, among others, bring societal transformation into sharp focus as the main aim of education. These scholars argue for an education that exceeds the idea of individual freedom and aims at breaking down the systemic and structural injustices of society. An education that encourages critique of dominant institutions and ideas will lead to this. Here, the emphasis shifts to human flourishing, rather than self-cultivation, as the central focus of humanistic education.

Of course, there are many more examples of humanism at work in education through history, but what these three influential humanistic approaches to education demonstrate, apart from the commitment to the betterment of self and society, is a tendency toward universalizing and essentializing the human. It is this assumption of Western exceptionalism which postcolonial theorists critique, with particular aim taken at this ethnocentric humanism.

Postcolonial Challenge to Humanism: Overview

The postcolonial challenge to humanism can be understood most basically as a critique of the essentialist terms in which it is often articulated and its complicity in colonialism. This focuses on the arrogance of assuming that the ultimate normative conception of the human is the civilized European and that colonialism was a civilizing mission in the name of this humanism. It remains an open question as to whether a humanism that seems to have been so tainted by European forms of knowledge and cultural traditions can survive in a postcolonial and globalized world.

Oddly, perhaps, the particular kind of antihumanism that comes out of postcolonial critique might well enable the survival of a reconceptualized and rearticulated humanism. One must first understand that postcolonial antihumanism sees Western humanism as inextricably tied to the violence – both physical and epistemic – of colonialism. As Young (2004) puts it, this postcolonial antihumanism “starts with the realization of humanism’s involvement in the history of colonialism, which shows that the two are not so easily separable. For from the colonial perspective, humanism began as a form of legitimation produced as a self-justification by the colonizers for their own people, but later…was utilized as a form of ideological control of the colonized peoples” (p. 161). What we see emerge, then, from a set of very specific and local historical contexts, is a challenge to humanism that is less concerned with the category of the human in a philosophical sense and more concerned with the cultural politics of humanism. That is to say, the problem with humanism after the onset of colonialism is largely to do with the cultural and political work that it does, or at least is done, in the name of humanism.

However, it could be argued that such a critique, rooted as it is in the realm of the social, leaves open the possibility to imagine and produce a new humanism. In fact, this is the very thing to which Frantz Fanon gestures at the end of his final work, The Wretched of the Earth (2001). While this presents some productive possibilities for education, it will first be worthwhile to briefly consider some examples of postcolonial theory’s critique of humanism, those of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said.

Frantz Fanon

Fanon’s critical engagement with the idea of humanism is indelibly marked by his experience of leaving his colonized home for that of the colonizer and by his involvement with the Algerian Revolution. Growing up in Martinique and educated in a French colonial school, Fanon considered himself in some way French; his education had successfully worked to develop such a sensibility and identity. However, on leaving the Caribbean and arriving in France, first to join the French army during WWII and, later to study psychiatry, he was immediately confronted with the reality of his difference.

For Fanon, this difference was inextricably tied to the blackness of his skin. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon wrote of the way in which white men saw themselves as superior to black men and the way in which this kind of binary logic was at the core of the colonialist’s imagination. No matter how educated and “European” the black man was, Fanon writes that “the European has a fixed concept of the Negro” (2008, p. 23), and this fixed notion was, of course, one that images the black man as inferior. Thus, for Fanon, it was this encounter with the white man through his time in France that opened his eyes to the way in which the black man’s sense of identity was determined by the relation with the white man. He writes, “Ontology…does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man…[t]he black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man” (pp. 82–83). This recognition of a difference that was structured unequally posed a significant challenge to the universal assumptions of European humanism and was the beginning of Fanon’s attempt to repudiate this false humanism.

Fanon’s involvement with the Algerian fight for independence sees his relationship to colonialism, and its humanism become more political. While Black Skin, White Masks might be read as the theorizing of a psychiatrist, The Wretched of the Earth (Fanon 2001) emerges from the lived experience of participating in the Algerian anticolonial revolution. As such, the way in which colonial violence is treated is much more sensitive to the actual shedding of blood. Thus, for Fanon, any humanism that results in the destruction of humans is not worth its name and certainly not worth standing for. In The Wretched of the Earth, he implores his audience to, “Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe” (2001, p. 251). That the violence of colonialism was violence against humans could do no less than call into question the very possibility of speaking about the human in any universalist sense.

Edward W. Said

It is often claimed that the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978/2003) marks the beginning of postcolonial studies. In the book, Said seeks to demonstrate the Eurocentric knowledge production of the “oriental other.” Thus, Orientalism refers to the way in which Western colonialism creates a fixed, essentialized, image of the Orient that is, importantly, necessarily inferior to the dominant and civilized West. Leela Gandhi (1999) suggests that Orientalism elucidates colonialism “as the epistemological and cultural attitude which accompanies the curious habit of dominating and, whenever possible, ruling distant territories” (p. 67). Such an articulation of colonialism is important insofar as it makes clear that colonialism was not merely an economic (as one may imagine in the case of the East India Company) endeavor and nor did it only result in the kind of violence wielded by bayonets and guns but, more deeply, colonialism carried a certain “epistemological and cultural attitude.” In this way, Said demonstrated in Orientalism the ways in which knowledge production itself can be considered as violent.

But how does this relate to humanism? Perhaps most simply, insofar as postcolonial critique uncovers the complicity between Western knowledge and Western power, humanism must also recognize its own complicity in colonialism. That is, historically speaking rather than philosophically, humanism participates in – and perhaps propels – the civilizing mission of colonialism. This is particularly well captured by the now infamous quote from Sir Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education of 1835 in which he claims that those who were “Indian in blood and color” would, through English education, “become English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (cited in Loomba 2005, p. 75).

In terms of the impact of Said’s Orientalism, arguably the most important was that it conceptualized colonial relations in a way which carried significant implications for humanism and, more broadly, postcolonial studies. As such, this early work of Said’s is interesting not so much for what it says about humanism per se but what it says about ethnocentrism and, more specifically, European ethnocentrism as dominant in a world structured unevenly. Thus, as the quote from Macaulay’s Minute implies, European colonialism had significant effects in regard to knowledge. In the case of India, for example, the content of education was largely British – that is, about British history, culture, politics, and literature. However, it was also a British style of education: wooden desks, uniforms, English language, and manners. Furthermore, it was also a British epistemology; the empiricism of the post-Enlightenment came to become the common sense and, therefore, largely unquestioned arbiter of what counted as knowledge. Orientalism became foundational for postcolonial theorists because of the way in which it so clearly and persuasively argued that orientalist discourse produced the European as superior and the non-European as its inferior “other.”

Response to the Challenge

Postcolonialism – as an historical moment, a condition, and a theory – may be seen as marking the end of humanism on empirical, moral, and theoretical grounds. However, the way in which much postcolonial theory has sought to critique binary logic in favor of an acknowledgment of the processes of hybridization and the mutual effects of colonialism on both the colonized and the colonizer has meant that any easy dismissal of humanism might suggest an all-too-simple essentializing of it. Loomba (2005) writes that “Postcolonial studies have shown that both the “metropolis” and the “colony” were deeply altered by the colonial process. Both of them are, accordingly, also restructured by decolonization” (p. 22). And while she acknowledges the unequal ways in which the colonizer and the colonized were affected, the key point is that neither the metropolis nor the colony can be represented as a static, essentialized entity. Such an acknowledgment of the restructuring of identity and subjectivity has consequences for the way in which Europe, humanism, the subaltern, or any other representation can be conceptualized.

Dipesh Chakrabarty demonstrates a nuanced critique of colonialism and its effects by acknowledging not just the positives of European thought but also the inevitability of Europe. Indeed, he writes, “provincializing Europe cannot ever be a project of shunning European thought. For at the end of European imperialism, European thought is a gift to us all. We can talk of provincializing it only in an anticolonial spirit of gratitude” (2000, p. 255). Implicit here is a committed resistance to the basic project of colonialism, but not a complete dismissal of the effects of colonialism. For an attempt at the repudiation of Europe would not only be futile, but also foolish.

The same might be said of the humanism that seems to have been inextricably bound to the colonialists’ civilizing mission. A strident anticolonialism ignores the lessons of Chakrabarty (and others, such as Bhabha) by perpetuating the simple binary which results in a colonial/anticolonial dialectic, thus producing essentialized notions of both. Instead, Chakrabarty’s aim in Provincializing Europe is to relativize the construct of Europe. He seeks to show the way in which European modes of thinking can be challenged and decentered by the telling of histories from the colonies which represent a different logic. A clear example of this is the way in which subaltern histories involving spirits or deities challenge the idea that European thought became universalized through colonialism. What Chakrabarty was able to show was that, despite the attempt to explain or translate local Bengali stories of divine action from the perspective of a European disenchanted, secular worldview, in actual fact these local Bengali ways of thinking and acting continued even after the onset colonialism. The remembering of these local stories is important because they ensure that European thought does not ameliorate difference.

However, by also refusing to dismiss all European thought as “bad,” Chakrabarty provides for the possibility of negotiating new ways of knowing and understanding in the postcolonial. It is this postcolonial way of thinking relationally and critically which also provides the possibility for different forms of humanistic education to be imagined and practiced.

Possibilities for Humanism and Education

Despite postcolonial and other critiques of humanism, calls for its renewal, rather than repudiation, remain. Such a call implies at least three things: first, that the ideas behind humanism are worth retaining; second, that the form which humanism takes can change; and third, that conceptions of humanism need to change. Yet it also seems to imply that there is actually something core to humanism that makes it worth preserving and reconstituting for a global future; such a claim would seem to ignore the particularity of culture. The universal and the particular, it might be suggested, exist as an irresolvable tension. Indeed, Chakrabarty suggests, “we need universals to produce critical readings of social injustices. Yet the universal…[produces] forms of thought that ultimately evacuate the place of the local” (2000, pp. 254–255).

Within an educational context of global interconnectivity and interdependence, in which the travel of ideas, people, and knowledge becomes ever more extensive and intensive, it could be conceived that the inevitability of cultural difference could either be trampled by an imperialist global hegemony (a new universalism) or ameliorated and trivialized by a polite cultural relativism. It is here that a humanism emerging from postcolonial theory might have something to contribute.

Indeed, Seth (2011) suggests that “at the heart of the notion of humanism is that something that we all share and which sanctions our aspirations towards equality, despite our differences” (p. 6). So, while humanistic education might be understood as having an impulse or an ethico-political imperative toward the (universal) good, precisely what it is that constitutes the good remains as something which must always be negotiated and reconsidered according to the particular. Through adopting a postcolonial strategy, educators may seek societal transformation in ways that refuse simplistic binary representations of good and bad. As teachers and students increasingly find themselves in places marked by cultural difference, it will be even more important that shared goals and aspirations can be affirmed despite real and continuing differences. In other words, a postcolonial humanistic education seeks to maintain, rather than release, the tension between the particular and the universal. Articulated in this way, postcolonial humanism has much to contribute to the future of education.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia