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Colonizing the Student: “Introduction”

by Stephen Hebert on Sunday - 10 January 2010

in Education

Lately, I’ve been thinking about educational theory. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve been reading a variety of essays about race and class struggles as well as some texts dealing with genocide and imperialism in Africa. Perhaps an odd combination when it comes to thinking about students…

What really got me going was the idea of cultural imperialism and cultural hegemony that came to mind while reading Sherman Alexie‘s “Superman and Me” in which he discusses some difficulties he had growing up on a reservation where being book smart wasn’t prized by his peers. Specifically, I became interested in the way that Superman serves as an important symbol for Alexie. This thoroughly patriotic, thoroughly American, thoroughly white, yet thoroughly alien savior would bust down the doors and help Alexie free himself from the chains of the reservation. How strange that a man who seems quite proud of his Spokane Indian heritage would seek to liberate his fellow tribesmen by asking them to assent to the cultural norms and expectations of whites.

Like it or not, we are living in a postcolonial1 situation here in the United States. reading Alexie’s essay made this very real to me. As I am not a postcolonial theorist, I can’t begin to relate the history of scholarship on this topic, but I hope to just roll through this as a thought experiment. How has the Euro-American, colonial attitude infected the classroom? How has it infected my classroom?

To think about this, I feel that we must begin at the beginning, and consider some very basic questions. As I read Alexie’s words on the joys of reading and his desire to help the Spokane learn to feel that same joy, I began to think, “What is my job as an educator in a pluralistic community? What is the teacher to do?”

Part 2 of this series will look at that question a little more in-depth.


  1. I realize that this particular word is a minefield. At this moment, I don’t wish to unpack it. However, I do hope to spend some time parsing out Alexie’s educational history as presented in this essay. At that point, I’ll hit the postcolonial thing a bit more. For now, check out wikipedia: “Poscolonialism.”

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