Language, Nation, and Identity in the Classroom

Legacies of Modernity and Colonialism in Schooling

by David Hemphill (Author) Erin Blakely (Author)
©2015 Textbook 206 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 456


Language, Nation, and Identity in the Classroom critiques the normalizing aspects of schooling and the taken-for-granted assumptions in education about culture, identity, language, and learning. The text applies theories of postmodernism, postcolonialism, and other critical cultural theories from disciplines often overlooked in the field of education. The authors illustrate the potential of these theories for educators, offering a nuanced critical analysis of the role schools play in nationalistic enterprises and colonial projects. The book fills the current gap between simplified, ahistorical applications of multiculturalism and critical theory texts with only narrow applicability in the field. This clearly written alternative offers both an entry point to rigorous primary theoretical sources and broad applications of the scholarship to everyday practice in a range of PreK–12 classrooms and adult education settings globally. The text is designed for educators and advanced undergraduate or graduate students in the growing number of courses that address issues of cultural diversity, equity in education, multiculturalism, social and cultural foundations of education, literary studies, and educational policy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • 1 Narratives of Progress and the Colonial Origins of Schooling
  • The Invention of Childhood and “Developmentally Appropriate” Curriculum
  • The Spread of Formal Education
  • Nation-Building, Ideology, and Hegemony in the Classroom
  • Cultural Invisibility, Cultural Capital, & White Privilege
  • Case in Point: “Universal” Educational Truths: Class Size and Classroom Management Practices
  • Orientalism and the “Othering” of Non-Western Cultures
  • Schooling and Colonial Logic
  • 2 Deconstructing Modernity
  • Enlightenment Origins
  • Postmodern Critiques
  • Scientism and “Research-based” Practices
  • Paradigm Shifts and Ethnosciences
  • The Illusion of Objectivity
  • Western Knowledge Hierarchies & Popular Culture
  • Case in Point: PSP, Hot Cheetos, and Bobby Jack: Consumption and Students’ Narrative Displays
  • 3 Multiculturalism and the Domestication of Difference
  • The Invention of Race
  • A History of Multicultural Education
  • Essentialism, Reification, and Other Pitfalls of Multiculturalism
  • Case in Point: Race-Bending
  • Hybridity and the Third Space
  • 4 Globalization, Transnationality, and Citizen-Consumers
  • Time–Space Compression and Global Networks
  • Myths of Globalization
  • Diasporas, Borderlands, and Elastic Communities
  • Case in Point: US-Mexico Transnational Migrant Circuits
  • Flexible Citizenship
  • Globalized Marketplaces and Youth Identities
  • 5 Social Cognition
  • The Measurement of Intelligence & Test Bias
  • Cultural Transmission, Tools, and Schemas
  • Case in Point: The Codification of Storytelling in Elementary Classrooms
  • “Cognitive Styles” Research
  • Decontextualization of Knowledge and Situated Learning
  • 6 Commodification of Language and Literacy
  • Modernist Theories of Language Acquisition
  • Dialects, Creoles, & Language Varieties
  • Case in Point: Language in the Inner City
  • Conceptual Metaphors
  • Literacy Instruction Policy Debates
  • Multiliteracies
  • 7 Discourse and Discipline
  • Power/Knowledge, Discourse, and Governmentality
  • Normalization
  • Case in Point: Normalizing Puberty through Corporate- and State-Sponsored Curricula
  • Technologies of the Self and Self-regulation
  • Surveillance
  • Commodification of Knowledge
  • References
  • Index

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1Narratives of Progress and the Colonial Origins of Schooling

In the West and regions influenced by the West, educators operate within a system structured by modernity and colonialism, though the history and legacies of both remain largely unrecognized and ignored in the field. Despite the fact that schooling is a primary forum for the transmission of language, citizenship, and culture, it is rare in recent decades for teacher preparation programs and schools of education to address the historical origins or cultural specificity of learning and identity. This absence of theory and history contributes to the wide pendulum swings that often occur within the field from: phonics to whole language reading instruction; bilingualism to English-only mandates; portfolio assessments to pencil-and-paper tests; or US national policies like the No Child Left Behind legislation to the Common Core Standards. Each generation of new teachers comes into the profession with little access to knowledge of what has gone before and without the theoretical resources to move beyond two-sided debates in order to investigate how language, nation, and identity unfold in their classrooms.

Many seemingly natural or commonsense policies and practices within the field of education—the age-graded organization of students, the chronological division of history from prehistoric to modern civilizations, and the exploration of regions and cultures one at a time, with sequential units, for example, on Native Americans or China—may appear inevitable or neutral to educators. Yet these patterns are implicated in the distribution and normalization of social hierarchies and systems of difference that privilege certain forms of knowledge (abstract, decontextualized, or scientific) and certain communities (Western, developed, or “civilized”).

A modernist paradigm has dominated Western thought since its development around the time of the European Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries. Primary elements of modernism include: ← 1 | 2 →

 a privileging of logic, rationality, science, and observable evidence as the most reliable, legitimate paths to truth and knowledge;

 an emphasis on overarching metanarratives—theories that seek to “explain everything,” like the narrative of progress that organizes history in an ever-upward march towards advanced civilization;

 a reliance on form over content that, for example, focuses on research procedures and not context in the scientific method, or emphasizes process in legal proceedings;

 a tendency to see things as binaries (either/or), such as mind/body, rational/irrational, science/humanities, male/female, White/Black, or self/Other; and

 a conceptualization of subjectivity that defines the individual as being of primary importance, and characterizes the “normal” adult self as rational, stable, autonomous, fully transparent to itself, and responsible for its actions.

The main tenets of modernism are so thoroughly embedded in the conceptual frameworks, languages, and socioeconomic systems operating in the West that they seem natural and timeless. Countering Western social hierarchies and systems of difference requires unpacking the normative binaries in Western discourse and articulating how the tenets of modernism undergird Western institutions like schools.

The Invention of Childhood and “Developmentally Appropriate” Curriculum

Before Western industrialization, age was not the primary criterion for ordering lives. Children were not segregated from the full range of adult activities and work, but labored alongside their relatives at home or on a farm. The separation of the workplace from the home that accompanied industrialization led to the development of age-graded, child-focused bureaucratic institutions, such as pediatrics and compulsory schooling, which began to monitor, organize, and define childhood. From these institutions a discourse emerged that imagined childhood as an innocent, vulnerable, and transient stage, requiring a range of protective services. Though now widely considered a “natural” stage of life, childhood is an historical invention and product of modernist binaries—work/home, child/adult, and mature/immature. The naturalization of these binaries and the modernist conceptualization of subjectivity has rendered childhood essentially separate from adulthood. This naturalization has created a hierarchical relationship between adults, who are presumed to be stable, rational, and fully transparent ← 2 | 3 → to themselves, and children, who have yet to achieve this state. Institutions like schools, as a result, are required to promote the advancement of children.

Children in the West are described almost without exception in terms of a linear narrative of progress. Childhood is delineated into many stages, where children are viewed as advancing in sequential stages from the primitive scrawls of a preschooler through mastery of advanced skills. A narrative of progress underlies many of the hierarchies that operate within school systems. The pay scales of instructors, for example, where preschool teachers are paid the least and university professors the most, reflect the inherent assumption that the pedagogical requirements for teaching the youngest students are less than the requirements for teaching the most “advanced, rigorous” courses.

This narrative of progress has been operationalized in schools, particularly through the division of students into grade-levels and the adherence to age-based stage theories that promote “developmentally appropriate” instruction. This curricular direction for young children leads to the constant measurement of children’s progress and hyper-assessment based on a mythical norm. Examples of the broad range of stage theories that have influenced Western education include: Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development; Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development; Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development; and Daniel Levinson’s stages of adult development, among others.

The widely cited Swiss developmental researcher Jean Piaget suggests that there are four sequential, fixed stages of human cognitive development: sensorimotor; pre-operational; concrete-operational; and formal-operational. Through these stages, Piaget charts how a child moves from initially acquiring information through sensory experiences to eventually employing deductive, abstract reasoning. The majority of curricula adopted in the US and other Western countries are based on Piaget’s developmental theories, which are generalized to all ages and cultures, though they were developed from only observations of his own children. The Ages & Stages evaluations and learning activities used by Head Start and many other public and private preschool programs in the US go even further than Piagetian research claims; they break down activities and instructional strategies into four-month micro-increments for children aged one month through five years. “Developmentally appropriate” curriculum assumes that there is consistent development and progress even over short spans of time. It assumes that children will be able to perform the same in any setting—and at any time—when assessed. This type of bureaucratization is a pervasive practice in education that amplifies uncritical universalization of Western norms. ← 3 | 4 →

Descriptions of childhood in educational, social work, and psychological literature almost without exception present stage-based models of youth and of identity, marking the transition to adulthood as a moment of identity crisis. Adolescents, for instance, are considered to be in a deficit state of “becoming”; it only has meaning in relation to the rational adult they are expected to become. The binary division of youth from adulthood and the corresponding deficit-based model of adolescence is not, however, an objective developmental state. As youth development theorists Sunaina Maira and Elisabeth Soep note, the idea of “youth-as-transition” is culturally constructed. This division is neither natural nor universal, but exists for historical and cultural reasons; it is, they argue, “necessary to the division of labor and the hierarchy of material relations specific to various forms of the capitalist state” (2005, p. xxiii).

In the West, the prevailing image of adolescents is one of hormonally-driven individuals, highly subject to peer pressure, impulsivity, and a desire to rebel or separate themselves from their adult caretakers. This unquestioned image shapes the disciplinary and surveillance systems that schools put in place and the kinds of intervention programs they offer, from self-esteem workshops to drug and gang intervention programs, sex education, and parent support groups. These interventions are widely accepted as necessary and inevitable, often without any recognition of the history, norms, or national and commercial interests that underlie the Western “storm and stress” model of adolescence.


ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
education postmodernism multiculturalism alternative postcolonialism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 206 pp., ill.

Biographical notes

David Hemphill (Author) Erin Blakely (Author)

David Hemphill is a professor, researcher, and musician. He is Professor and Chair in the Graduate College of Education at San Francisco State University, where he has been on the faculty for three decades. He writes widely on culture, language, literacy, and power in education. Erin Blakely has worked in elementary and middle schools for fifteen years as a reading and math specialist, academic dean, and school leadership facilitator. She develops curricula and policy, designs equity initiatives, facilitates collaborative leadership teams, and provides professional development for local school districts.


Title: Language, Nation, and Identity in the Classroom
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