Unlearning Border Fixity — Towards a relational pedagogy after the nationalist crisis
by Adrian Schlegel
The year 2020 might fill our descendants’ history books with the rampant phenomena that emerged around the COVID-19 pandemic. The global health crisis, aggravating social inequalities, political authoritarianism, gender-based discrimination and economic fragility might be few aspects that would serve as representational bullet points of currently lived realities. What pupils might equally learn about, is the recurring nationalism around the globe. Boxes of case-studies might cover different examples of different polit-economic responses states pursued within their national borders. “Detachedness” and “Competition” could stand out as bold key words from the contextualising paragraph, illustrated by an image of refugees raising their voices outside the closed borders of the European Union. On the following page, an internationalist activist would report in their testimonial about difficulties to mobilise against the nationalistic political responses. The few errors on the geopolitical map next to it would support his witness of the weak cooperation between states and the loss in significance of international organisations. Writing from within the temporal epicentre of the crisis we do not know what the following pages of the book might hold for us. The more important it becomes to put effort into a theoretical analysis of the context in which this crisis is unfolding. Regarding the nationalistic reactions to the pandemic, it is thus essential to understand how nationalism prevailed underneath and outgrew the consciousness of our societies during the time preceding the crisis. For our future pupils, such enquiry can be essential to learn from the fallacies of the current political constellations. In the now, this most notably becomes a necessity – to speak in the metaphor of the book – to prevent the following chapter of our history book being inhabited by a fascist, war torn dystopia. Diverse critical social theories describing the persistence of nationalism have long singled out education as a central factor to determine the collective imagination and political action to either consolidate or overcome nationalist ideologies. It therefore becomes meaningful to reflect on the role rationalised education systems have played in structuring nationalist thinking within society to discuss perspectives that might take education beyond the constraints of bounded nationalism visible in this crisis.
How does nationalism function and what role does education play?
Starting from a very abstract level, we could begin by asking how nationalism as an idea emerges. Assuming that humans are social beings, they inevitably enter relations with their environment. In the context of a spatial fixity of these relations and a reciprocal support in providing means of subsistence, group like structures might evolve. To stabilise the context, the sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann argue that humans seek to habitualise social constellations (1991: 71). A group identity is created to shape the cohesion of the group. In the course of history, human groups voluntarily merge or are violently merged into bigger societies, where people cannot or do not want to constantly reach each other. For those ruling and convinced of the persistence of the constellation, another mode of strengthening cohesion becomes necessary. Also, since human lives are finite, so is their individual carriage of knowledge about these structures. Thus, social institutions become a necessity to guarantee stability among the reconfiguring relationships along spatial distances and temporal changes (Berger/Luckmann 1991: 72). These take very different shapes throughout human history: diverse cultural, religious, political or economic institutions regulated the way people cohabited with their environment. In the contemporary era this is for most areas of the world the modern nation state. A construct, that emerged in Europe – depending on the theory – between the 16th and 19th century and was then globalised during a long and violent history of colonialism (Chakrabarty 2008). While boundaries previously varied strongly in their fixity, the diffusion of the idea of the nation state universalised a rigid regime of borders. The political scientist Benedict Anderson considers such clear limitations essential for a feeling of sovereignty to emerge within a society (2006). The interplay between limits and sovereignty found the basis for the “imagined community” that binds the nation state along the constraints of global capitalism. To produce and reproduce the relations necessary for such “imagined community” those in favour of the nation used diverse mechanisms, either of a repressive or ideological character. Following the philosopher Louis Althusser, in a capitalist society it is foremost the ideological apparatuses that legitimises configurations and prefigures the identity of a group (2014). Educational institutions are, along the family or public media, the central space to define the self-perception in the world the subject inhabits. This, in a world of nation states, he suggests, includes the ideology of nationalism (Althusser 2014). It makes imaginary borders visible, against which value systems and particular forms of social organisation are normalised, while others are marginalised. Education thus functions as a means to produce and sustain a supposed supremacy in the imagination of its population. In his famous essays on nationalism, the polymath Rabindranath Tagore argues that it is therefore, that a nationalist organisation necessarily strives for collective efficiency and strength (2016). According to him such blind focus produces an imminent menace to humanity. Under these circumstances, an individual is as he proclaims “diverted from their ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organization, which is mechanical. Yet in this they feel all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore become supremely dangerous to humanity” (Tagore 2016: 99).
The nation is set as the foremost and unquestioned end, to which reason is instrumentalised. The rationalised education systems dominating the world are suitable places for this instrumental process. Already one of the most prominent representatives of critical theory, Max Horkheimer, noted the underlying logic of instrumental reason facilitates a mechanic reproduction of the nationalist ideology (1974). This prevents the individual to criticise or deviate from the nationalist cause. Moreover, a fixity of structures is created in the social imagination of the learners. An immutability in ideas of borders and the supposedly different structures which they divide, serve as fertile ground for blind apathy and discrimination. Against the degraded “other”, the glorified self is seldom questioned, facilitating the attribution of misery or marginalisation within the society’s own social stratification to exogen causes. A mechanic education supports this logic with its sheer focus on developing best means to the uncontested national ends. In hierarchical structures of unilinear knowledge transfer an atmosphere of fear is created, which supports such mechanic repetition of a singular, bounded world view. An education that does not embrace critique thereby creates conditions of mental slavery to blindly adhere the national cause (Tagore 2016: 99). What happens beyond the fixed borders of one’s own imagined nation then tends to become insignificant.
Nationalist responses to Corona and the need for rethinking education
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a nationalistic socialisation in the sub-conscience of a society and the individual turn out visible. To start with, the medical fight against the virus has been shaped by competition rather than cooperation. Only few months into the struggle to develop and produce medical prevention of the COVID-19 pathogen, the term “vaccine-nationalism” has been shaped to describe the danger of the nationalistic approaches taken in this process (see Weintraub et al. 2020; Milne/Crow 2020). At the same time, the current crisis – whether in its sanitary or polit-economic shapes – spans the globe, thus becoming an international issue. That such circumstances need internationalised measures has not least become evident after past epidemics like SARS or Ebola, where the inadequate or late cooperation between states has not only hindered a quick elimination of the disease but also prevented the establishment of a more resilient global health network (see Benton/Dionne 2015; Fidler 2003). Nationalistic political responses, for instance those of China during the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003, have been considered a major constraint to such internationalised efforts (Yoon 2008). It is thus questionable but desirable that Florian Bieber (2020) remains right with his prognosis, that the COVID-19 pandemic might not necessarily enlarge a global spread of exclusionary nationalism. He equally argues though, that it could foster already prevalent dynamics of border fixity and an acceptance of an authoritative nation-state as the legitimate form of social organisation. (ibid.). Along this argument, it is valuable to acknowledge not merely the nationalistic political responses to the crisis but the little public outcry against them attest an insidious consensus on the idea of the nation. This is sadly the case even in countries where openly declared nationalist parties are weak. It is worrisome how the closing of borders, the precarity triggered by their closure or the massive scaling down of international solidarity have entailed limited contestation around the world. Even symbolic events like the ruthless competition for hygiene masks between air-forces of different nation-states on airport runways did solely entail little internationalised critique (see Willsher et al. 2020). Equally emblematic is the weak protest against metaphors of “war” frequently used politically to describe the current pandemic. The narrative portrays the crisis as exogenous, serving as a subtle legitimisation of the nationalist and strongly authoritative responses we see around the world. The inequal and fragile polit-economic structures endogenous to the societies have meanwhile hardly been considered as facilitators of this crisis and are consequently barely addressed. The European Union (EU) can currently serve as an ambivalent example to this thesis. The proposed “Recovery plan for Europe” by the EU commission could on a first glance be regarded as a success to transcend national borders (European Commission 2020). However, the closing of borders and the weak coordinative role of the EU institutions in the first three months after the first cases appeared in Europe must be considered as a weakening of both the EU and the Schengen agreement while strengthening the nationalist forces within European countries (see Grant 2020). Furthermore, the recovery project stops at the outer borders of the EU and thus at most stretches the boundaries of political action to an inner-European imagination that has anyways been established since the 1950s. If we therefore want to prevent a continuation of such border fixation after the flattening of the pandemic, there must be more efforts to go to the roots of a nationalistic socialisation – to rethink education. There is a need for enhanced reflections on how pedagogy can become more a process, where self-emancipation within communities is fostered, borders are deflected and human ties are re-established.
Unlearning border fixity through relationality and responsibility
To start a conversation to transform nationalist education, it might be valuable to tackle two central concerns. First, knowledge exchanged through education must be subject to critical fluidity. In this realm, a thematization of the historical rise and current perpetuations of the ideology of nationhood might be an obvious topic to be included into education. Also, a continuous critical engagement with the belief systems and social structures of the pupil’s own community would lay at hand along the previous analysis. The aspect that cuts down further to the way nationalist thinking works within the current pandemic, is the aim for fluidity in distinctions of knowledge. According to the pedagogue Jiddu Krishnamurti’s reflections on education, such breaking with mechanical pedagogy in an emancipatory environment free of fear can overcome mental slavery in society (2006: 4ff., 10ff.). This does not necessarily contradict social stability that is certainly needed for many people – especially in this time of crisis. Listening to the central intellectual and political challenger of Indian caste discrimination Bhimrao Raji Ambedkar, marginalisation is only produced in relationships that are held unalterable and where adjustment happens without justice (2007). Thus, for him perspectives of fluidity and equity become imperative to social emancipation (ibid.: 60f.). This is foremost essential for social boundaries, for differences between human beings. As soon as their fluid characters are fixed, they become a danger for human co-existence. Therefore, education should encourage the student to a continuous critical enquiry of all imagined boundaries, most notably cultural and political borders. This idea equally connects to the second point. Educational institutions must be built around a notion of freedom that is grounded in relationality and inspire a holistic responsibility. To overcome the embodied nationalism evident in the current crisis, it might be valuable to link Tagore’s relational notion of freedom with Krishnamurti’s holistic responsibility. For Tagore, freedom is “the perfect harmony of relationship which we realize in this world” – an antidote to a liberal idea of freedom, where the individual’s efficiency can be instrumentalised for the free market and an imagined national community (1928: 23). According to him, education therefore needs to be a process through which the student gains intimacy with the world (ibid.). In her reflections on the educational system within a rising nationalism in the United States of America, Elizabeth Barrow argues that it is precisely the empathy for people beyond the boundaries of the nation-state that might lead to a more global understanding of citizenship (2017). Such intimate relationships seem fundamental to inspire the necessary responsibility transcending any borders in this global crisis. According to Krishnamurti, a feeling of responsibility must overcome any division that is created through humanities’ diverging positionalities. He argues that this is not only possible, since in the social embeddedness of their psyche “a human being is the whole of humankind” (Krishnamurti 2006: 18). To him, the pedagogical inspiration of an all-encompassing responsibility becomes also necessary for the learners to transform the knowledge humans have accumulated in the past into ideas that lead the path into an emancipatory future (Krishnamurti 2006: 22). Inspiring critical responsibility in any learning institution might thus be key to dismantle and transform a geographically bounded memory and knowledge of the past that underlies the subtle nationalism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To overcome the regressive ideology of nationalism that shapes this global crisis, a deep transformation of the way education is pursued thus becomes necessary. Creating a space, where critique is valued, a fluidity of knowledge acknowledged, relational freedom lived and holistic responsibility inspired can only be a first imperative for grass-root pedagogues, teachers and policy makers. We can only hope that the students reflecting on the historical trajectories of the COVID-19 pandemic learn in such an emancipatory atmosphere. And maybe by then, the medium of a singular and static history book that we imagined is already outdated by much more meaningful methods to embody how to overcome such global crises in sustainable conviviality.
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About the Author
Adrian Schlegel is currently pursuing a Masters in Global Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the University of Pretoria and Humboldt University. Interested in decolonial perspectives on international cooperation on climate change, he is engaged in various collectives to develop a foster pathways for critical pedagogy in rationalised education systems.
This contribution was edited by Andreas Schulz.