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Reflection #3: “What was the first European country to go to Africa?”

lkahler's picture

   On Monday, Mr. Rhea’s history class discussed “The African Scramble.” After discussing the papers he had just handed back, Rhea lectured while sitting at the table of around fourteen students. Capitol High School charges tuition of over $30,000 a year, and socioeconomic privilege is a very present factor in all of the classes I’ve observed so far. So when Rhea started to discuss Africa, I decided to pay close attention to his framing, as in how does he present the topic of imperialism? Who is the focus? Are moral implications discussed or are the facts passed on unemotionally? Does he recognize the sensitivity of the topic? How do the students respond in body language and words, and can I make a statement about the raced nature of these reactions by white students versus the two students of color?”

            Rhea opened the lesson with a question. “What was the first European country to go to Africa?” I decided to use this as a slice of Rhea’s classroom because it is a perfect example of the way we tell stories about imperialism and in history classes in general. By closely analyzing the subject, verb, and object of each sentence, we can see through a benign, well-meaning question to really a statement that totters dangerously near ethnocentrism.

By opening the lesson with a question that puts the Europeans at the literal forefront of the conversation, Rhea reinforced or maybe even formed a view of history that argues Europeans are to be studied more than other countries. I am honestly having a hard time justifying this, but the problem is that ethnocentrism is rarely a conscious or justified thing. It seeps in to statements and Rhea’s question. The way the sentenced was structured also grants a greater position of power to the Europeans. That the Europeans “got into Africa” implies a natural order of things, that it was just a matter of time before imperialism happened. It doesn’t encourage empathy for Africans at all, and the whole conversation felt entirely too sterile.

I just kept thinking back to my junior year in high school when we read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and how devastating that was. Heart of Darkness is an incredibly dense text so sometimes it was hard to fully understand what we were reading, but our teacher made a point to lead us to an empathetic experience. She did this by expressing her own genuine shock, awe, and horror about Belgium’s invasion of the Congo. She would sit there during a lecture and do her classic move: banging on her desk when she got angry, frustrated, or excited. It didn’t feel orchestrated either, or that she was trying to impose a feeling or a specific response from us. It was her learning alongside us, which is something considerably lacking in Mr. Rhea’s class. He is the unquestionable authority on his subjects. Only once did he say “I don’t know, that’d be something I’d like to read more on,” and again, his tone just didn’t make me buy it. From reflecting on my own classroom experience though, I have realized that both Rhea’s and my English teacher’s teaching method on sensitive issues of identity feel natural. Teachers are granted automatic authority, and with this authority comes students’ trust. Naturally, the way in which teachers disseminate information that to some degree is taken as gospel truth has a huge impact on the way their students will come to move in the world. 

We live in a racist world with considerably fewer racist people than ever before, but resources are still distributed unjustly, according to racial hierarchies. In this so-called “post-racial” society, many people, especially those in places of privilege are reluctant to accept their role and benefit from these systems that dictate access and power, powers that include writing the history books from the white perspective. In this way, Rhea is a benevolent agent in the formation of his students’ racial attitudes. The classroom doesn’t exist in a vacuum of hierarchies and privileges, and Rhea’s statement seemed ignorant of his words’ and lecture’s power.

At many levels, Rhea’s question was about meritocracy. In our class on educational autobiographies, we discussed the role of meritocracy in the classroom. It plays out at Capitol very obviously. Rhea’s intellectual authority is unquestioned because he has earned it. The first Europeans got to Africa first because they beat out the other competing European countries, according to one student in the class, “because they were stronger.” European invaded Africa because Africa needed Europe to tame its “unruly citizens,” as Rhea genuinely called the victims of imperialism. Rhea is neither a terrible nor uneducated teacher, but he his lesson on the “African Scramble” was rife with subtle unchecked privileges.