Thursday, April 14, 2016

Decolonizing My Social Studies Classroom: using cinema to challenge mental maps

Two of the most famous "Arabists", Gertrude Bell and TE Lawrence,
visiting the pyramids with Winston Churchill in 1921.
Area studies folks love to talk about the creation of "imagined spaces" and "perceptual landscapes". Once you scratch beneath the veneer of this sort of jargon, it's easy to understand why the concepts these terms describe are currently en vogue. Forget about the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, virtually all borders are now recognized as somewhat fictitious and (at least) intellectually insecure. They are the ultimate anthropological artifacts, and arguably the most largest monuments of individual human intervention. Outside of territory exchanging hands through collective negotiation and invasion, ordinary people such as politicians (like James Balfour of the infamous Balfour Declaration), navigators (like James Cook), empire builders (like Cecil Rhodes of DeBeers and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe), and explorers (like one of my more dubious heroes Gertrude Bell) created the 20th century and 21st century world map.

Europe: 1900 (source)
As recently as in our grandparents' or great-grandparents' lifetime, the familiar map as we know it didn't exist, or at least, or at least, was free to be re-imagined and reshaped at will. Four or five generations back, some of my ancestors lived in Prussia. That territory then became German, then Polish, then German, then Polish again. Reportedly, my great-great-great grandfather Kruger, a goat boy who married a goose girl and migrated to the U.S., was obsessed with the military exploits of Frederick the Great and Napoleon until his death. For him, borders were surely loose concepts, at best. But to many people born after the mid-20th century, the lines between political entities probably seem immutable. Unless, that is, you happened to live in a disputed ethnic homeland, a hinterland with valuable resources prone to occupation, or in a recently established state, etc.

Which begs the question, who are the 21st century guardians of this awareness of map-making and map-breaking?

Well, high education rates aside, they probably aren't residents of North America. U.S. citizens post-1950 tend to look at world maps with a combination of boredom and awe, and to me the reason is twofold. One, we have not had to relearn the U.S. map since 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state, and two, we have not experienced a significant war for territory on the contiguous North American continent since the conflict between U.S. troops and Pancho Villa in the Southwestern U.S. in 1916. (Unless you count the long process of "displacement" of indigenous people during "peaceful" frontier settlement.) When even the possibility of change to a nation state's borders exists outside of living memory, that nation state can easily come to believe in its own permanence, and through the rigidity of that mindset, to see other places as equally permanent.

We are not the best people to ask about spatial imagination.

The United States of Eurasia (MUSE) 

However, let's forget for the moment the modern notions of sovereignty and nation states. When we turn to the idea of "regions" we find, perhaps, the best example of imagined space. Contrary to our common mental categories and divisions, Asia is actually not (gasp) a separate landmass from continental Europe. The most radical social scientists and politicians *might* divide the regions by tracing a finger down the Urals and including the Northern European Plain (the most populated tract of Russia) into Europe as a whole. After all, it's got "Europe" in the title. But anxieties about Russian expansionism run deep, and after all, we don't really want to encourage Russian inclusion into civilized Europe, do we? Therefore, anything in the Russian sphere of interest cannot be Europe. It's Eurasia, at best, Asia at worst. And therein lies the moral problem: meaning, Asia as the ultimate "other", of course.

For most of us, imagining Asia and imagining Europe amounts to the exact same action.

Arranged (2007)
We cannot, at this stage, easily do one activity without involving the other. Perhaps, once upon a time (let's say 500 years ago), the two were free to imagine each other without much interference. But at some point in the European-defined Age of Exploration and Colonization, the wires got forever crossed. As Ashis Nandy points out in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, the colonized person/nation's concept of self is no longer self-generated, it is dependent on the colonizer's image of that person or nation; so much so that even the act of rejection of the colonizer's imagined world only further cements the boundaries of the worldview that the colonizer created.

These internalized limits and categories certainly create political boundaries on paper and on the ground, but even more so, they create our mental maps--our personal and societal vision of the world. They decide not just where Turkey begins and Bulgaria ends, but what that transitional space signifies, and why it is necessary in the first place.

In order to decolonize the classroom, the invisible assumptions underpinning these mental maps must be (A) recognized and (B) challenged.

In other words, students must be freed to re-imagine space. 

Never on a Sunday (Greece, 1960)
Top assumptions ...

1. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have fixed, timeless borders.

2. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have black and white categories that place people in black and white spatial roles.

3. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps exist outside the individual's ability to critique or change. BUT when colonial and neo-colonial mental maps DO change, it is because the West has decided to change the rules (which is legitimate), or because the non-West has decided the rules must be changed (which is obviously illegitimate).

And the challengers are ....

1. Films about explorers (to open students' minds to the unknown)

As colonial as the word "explorer" admittedly sounds, exploring is a comfortable transitional role for an American to assume, a role that asks students to treat the world as a new place without any "mistakes in it", to learn to turn a fresh eye to unfamiliar landscapes. "Explorer's" films highlight plucky individuals grappling with hostile landscapes and shifting borders. They can introduce discussions around the constant modernizing quest to tame the wilderness and to scramble for resources, but without reverting to tired American bedtime stories of Lewis & Clark or Davy Crockett ... while simultaneously avoiding placing the student immediately in a a position of uncomfortable ignorance or defensiveness.

One of my favorite films to use for this purpose is Letter Never Sent (1960), a beautiful and terrifying Soviet film about a group of scientists on an expedition to the Siberian interior to search for natural resources "for the Fatherland".

In the first half, the film mostly seems concerned with the popular "civilized man turning savage again" trope, comparable to The Lord of the Flies or well, every season of LOST. However, in the second half, the group is decimated and separated by a massive forest fire. Then, the only question is, will any of them survive to return to their families again? And was the venture worth the risk?

Watching the African Queen (1951), or The Naked Jungle (1954) might also be entertaining examples of White Man and Woman vs. the Wild. But it's hard to beat LNS for pure cinematic value or environmental realism. I often lean toward making students watch older films when possible, but this is an easy subgenre to find in recent action and adventure and science fiction (if not always in parent-friendly films), and a relatively painless way to to remind students that most of the earth's territory was once uncharted.

2. Films about the alien and stranger (to entangle students' emotions in other people's realities)

Though they're often tearjerkers, films that portray stateless persons, refugees, separated families, etc. are helpful in showing the human impact of political boundaries and bureaucratic red tape, and the humanity on both sides of a border. This is a pretty common genre in art house international cinema, but so far, Baran (Iran, 2001--pictured below) and Lakhon Mein Eik (Pakistan, 1967) have gone over well in some of my classes.

Any story about immigrant experiences could achieve a comparable end. Ultimately, I want students to think about what it means to navigate invisibility, hostility, and displacement. West Side Story (1961) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) are excellent jumping off points, since U.S. students often have some familiarity with these stories and settings. English Vinglish (2012) is also probably a good choice, as it's both amusing and fairly universal in its themes.

As long as you can create an emotional reference point to humanize later discussions, or even a vocabulary to use across the board, I generally find that students will feel a kinship with similar, if more complex struggles elsewhere. If they watch Fiddler on the Roof and talk about anti-Semitic pogroms, then later we can discuss ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or East Africa with a bit more second-hand displacement experience with which to ground our conversation.

[Note: Of course, there are other ways to provide a similar second-hand experience. In my geography class last year, we did a refugee crisis simulation--where some students got to be the European gatekeepers and some "got" to be Syrian and North African refugees.]

3. Films about revolutionaries and rebels (to shift students' expectations of the "other")

This is one of my favorite categories of film. Half the time these films were released as propaganda serving some party on the political spectrum or some particular regime. But they are still fascinating, inspirational, and for U.S. citizens at least, enlightening. We tend to think of most other countries' citizens as disempowered in comparison to Americans, while simultaneously fearing the power that other countries' citizens may choose to seize.

I love the following films both for entertainment and discussion purposes: Lawrence of Arabia (1960), The Last Bridge (Austria, 1954) The Hunger Games films (2012-2015), The Red Detachment of Women (China, 1961), Kommunist (USSR, 1959), Battle of Algiers (Italy-Algeria, 1966), Island in the Sun (1957), and Baaz (1953).

Note: despite the appearance of the above list, I don't try to turn out communist sympathizers (nor do I push my students toward the American left or the right), but I do like to turn out students who respect revolutionary ideals in theory, and the right/ability of other people groups and oppressed populations to try to change their circumstances.

My next experiment ... 

Next year I think I'm going to have my students watch the surprisingly relevant Vincent Price/Samuel Fuller film about a forger who tried to "steal" an entire U.S. territory: The Baron of Arizona (1950).

I'll probably pair it with a reading on Cecil Rhodes and/or other famous landgrabbers, along with a conversation about land redistribution in postcolonial nations.

In conclusion ...

Sabarmati (1969)
If a student's mental map is neo-colonial (favoring the Western world in all matters of spatial choice, definition, and agency), then in order to decolonize the classroom, the teacher needs to shift the balance of power in the imagined space first by:

1. Encouraging creativity and curiosity when envisioning the possibilities and limits of human use of the landscape (even if it means temporarily letting students slip into easy colonial roles)

2. Fostering empathy for people who don't fit well inside those limits

3. Giving students a chance to spend an hour or two rooting for people who challenge those arbitrary boundaries or their own comfortable categories

Pedagogically, it's all to easy to stop here ... having hopefully encouraged the growth of empathy and awareness, if nothing else. But mental maps are also drawn from a specific lookout point--from the ground we psychologically stand upon. And that choice of ground is often suspect. As Prof. Harry Goruba (University of Cape Town) points out:
Yes, the view of Cape Town from here is as stunning as it is panoramic — just as the tourist brochure tells you. What arrests you here though is not really this view but the vision it encapsulates: the vision of an era when the world was out there for the taking, when Africa was envisioned as a vast landscape, lying supine at your feet, waiting for the lights of civilisation and commerce to shine over it. It is this panoptic vision of a world under the gaze and surveillance of an imperial man that hits you in the guts: this, in essence, is the modernist dream of encyclopaedic knowledge and control over native subjects. This is one way of thinking Africa from the Cape: the modernist, imperialist version that Cecil John Rhodes embodied and envisioned. It is a vision that represses other peoples, other histories, other knowledges; rather than a dialogic engagement, it privileges a mono-centric, colonising view of the world. [Excerpt from: How not to think of Africa from the Cape, 2011]
So, I'm adopting a fourth goal, elusive though it may be to attain. 

4. Helping students develop the mindset of a "borderlander", a concept inspired by the life of Czeslaw Milosz and developed by Krzysztof Czyzewski. Milosz was a Lithuanian-Polish poet (and one of my favorites), author of the anti-totalitarian work "The Captive Mind", and also Nobel Laureate. He hailed from a region of Lithuania that changed national "hands" many times through his lifetime.
Behind my thoughts is the practice of the borderland. Can one “practice” the borderland? If we understand by this term a certain territory, it would be more appropriate to speak of “cultivating” or “exploring” the borderland. But I am speaking here about a territory that is not necessarily situated in a specific place (for example, a state borderline); rather, I am referring to an area crisscrossed by internal borders, where the inhabitants speak different languages, pray in different temples, or have different national identities. In multicultural areas like the territories of the former Jagiellonian Commonwealth, the word “borderland” described not only a place but also a certain ethos or tradition.The way those notions used to be perceived is reflected in the very term “borderlander,” which refers to a person with tangled family roots who is characterized by tolerance, empathy, critical patriotism, a resistance to ethnic phobias, fluency in many languages, and curiosity about otherness. A borderlander loves his or her small homeland but is open to the outside world. [Emphasis mine] (Source: Line of Return: Practicing “The Borderland” In Dialogue With Czeslaw Milosz. By Krzysztof Czyzewski; Michigan Quarterly Review, 2007.)
It may not be a radically decolonized perspective, but it's a start. 

Now it's your turn! What (semi-accessible) movies would you recommend to expand my resource cabinet, and what do you think are the most important neo-colonial assumptions that affect our mental maps?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Decolonizing my social studies classroom (one film at a time)

In my world geography course, my students know that I have one golden rule: don't bore me, and I'll try my darndest not to bore you. Using current events alone, it's relatively easy to find a hundred bits of interesting information about other places and spaces and repackage it all in sensationalist terms. Obviously, everyone "loves" a crisis (that isn't happening to them). If you can (at worst) get students to learn a little bit about another place while talking about its problems, or (at best) help them learn to treat each new country as a separate entity with a complex narrative ... that's probably more than they'll glean from their regular diet of news headlines on Facebook trending.

But teaching history is a bit trickier.

Satirical Stereotype Map of the World (source)
First, at the secondary level, there's this inconvenient and unfortunate reality that by the end of the year, most classes never get much past the unit on WWII. Obviously, several important things have happened since then;  a lot more than can be compressed in a rushed four week treatment of American military escapades or the U.S. civil rights movement at the end of term. But, more importantly, when the lens is moved slightly outward from the center of North America, the same period of history is suddenly revealed to be an era of rapid globalization and decolonization, of an increasingly industrializing and democratizing global south, of countless multipolar tectonic shifts that cannot be tamed or explained by the stubby historical measuring stick of the Cold War. Ironically, this temporally cramped, myopic focus on robust American political and cultural activities during the same period paints a picture that is in itself protectionist, de-globalizing, and re-colonizing. So, right, exactly the opposite of the emerging global reality. And worst of all ... it's boring.

How can one expect American students to be interested in a world that is defined only in relationship to perceived U.S. wins or losses? Yes, at first glance, this may *seem* the best way to make a foreign culture relevant to a person firmly planted in their home culture, but this is really the pedagogical equivalent of a person feigning public interest in a romantic partner who apparently has no other life outside the romance. Sure, the chemistry might be there, the power dynamics might be exciting, but what are you going to talk about afterward? The weather?

Literally the first result when you search the
year 1963 on Google Images (source)
Furthermore, learning about JFK's assassination for the umpteenth time may be useful in civics class, but it's the height of folly to assume that (A) students will still care at that point of mindless repetition, and (B) that this one, single, event in American history is more important to talk about than other events happening the same year everywhere else.

For example, three far-reaching events that also occurred in 1963:  

*Josip Broz Tito named President for Life in Yugoslavia

*Police raids in South Africa capture numerous African National Congress leaders, including Nelson Mandela

*The first Bond film, "Dr. No" is released in the U.S.

But, why should students be interested in these events any more than the death of a president they never knew?

For some, it's enough to draw the cause and effect connections across the temporal landscape:

1. Tito remained in a sort of benevolent dictatorial power until his death in 1980. His demise is generally considered the beginning of the process of Balkan fragmentation and the rise of ethnic nationalism that generated the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

2. Mandela remained imprisoned for the next 27 years, the ANC went further underground (and out of SA entirely), and eventually emerged as the primary negotiating partner in the development of the new post-Apartheid constitution in 1993. Of course, though it's maintained its majority representation in the South African parliament, and remains for many the party of Black liberation and Mandela, the ANC has been constantly beset by corruption and legal charges against its most prominent representatives in the last 15 years--most recently--with the accusations of state capture and the constitutional court ruling against the current president, Jacob Zuma.

3. 26 Bond films have been released to date, and could there really be another film series that better reflects the the new retro-European ideal of neocolonial power? Certainly, one couldn't find another franchise that beats Bond in illustrating the mythologization of Western intelligence services in the Information Age.

But for the other 9 out of 10 students, these correlations will mean nothing at first. A long collapsed Yugoslavia and a genocide that happened in a mythical time (today's high school students were born after 1995) means nothing to them.

What *might* mean something to them is that they've heard and hummed the James Bond theme their entire life, and maybe they like the movies. Or maybe they DON'T "get" the movies, but are kind of curious about the phenomenon itself.

Entertainment is personally relevant. Entertainment entertains. 

Or, to give another example, the first image above is from Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria, 2013). Significance to world literature or film aside, there's nothing like some drunk postcolonial sociology to make a film worth seeing. If you're a sociology nerd. For most non-Nigerians, the heart-rending personal stories within the story are what might make it worth giving up a Friday night at a Marvel film ... not the social commentary. BUT, the social commentary and unique cultural points of view are still there to be absorbed, nonetheless.

So, instead of asking my students to read a textbook and take history tests chock full of dates they will forget tomorrow, I decided to design a curriculum that would take students through the years of 1945 to 2016 movie by movie, one pop culture moment after another, with political scandals and propaganda in scores, and without confining ourselves to the casually self-centered historical comfort zone of American life.

It's still a work in progress, but it's been quite an interesting two years of teaching this course ... to say the least. I've found a lot of things that work, and a lot of things that don't, and over the next few months, I'm going to write about it; focusing on the pop-culture items, documentaries, and discussions from around the world that I've employed to try to make the scary places outside our American borders (A) personal, and (B) interesting to my world history students.

I hope you enjoy!

Note: I am a tutor who teaches middle school and high school classes at a small academy in the Twin Cities, MN, that provides non-traditional students with a part-time, private-school-esque experience. Thus, I have a bit more room to experiment and to develop curriculum than the average public school professional.