The compulsory free education provided by the state was conceived as an idea in the late XVIIIth century and started coming into existence, painfully and slowly, throughout the XIXth century. It was created by the Enlightened thinkers of Europe and the Americas who were trying to come up with ways to solidify the nation-state model.
What is a nation-state? It is a myth, a fantasy that “we”, the imagined community of people residing within these completely arbitrary borders, have something in common. According to the myth, “we” have resided here since times immemorial and that history gives us a claim to the land*. The borders that separate us from the “not we” are not arbitrary lines drawn in the sand but meaningful divisions that always existed. They are so meaningful that “we” should be ready to defend them to the last drop of our blood.
“We” share some innate characteristics that unite us in the face of the enemy (an external and internal one). “We” owe more (actually, we owe our lives) to the defense of this sacred communion with other members of the nation residing on our sacred land. Our union has the blessing of “our” great artists, philosophers, and sacred figures produced by our land. If “we” weren’t great, would “we” have produced such greatness? Our great artists and thinkers all knew that they were part of the “we” (even though the “we” was created five minutes ago and the artists lived 600 years ago.) But they knew about the “we” because our “we” is eternal.
This is obviously a bunch of complete and utter baloney.
Trying to sell the baloney to people requires quite an effort. Especially when you are expecting said people to go die in enormous numbers for the baloney.
History books have to be rewritten, archives have to be sifted through and tightly controlled, works of art need explanations attached to them that will serve the process of this myth-making**. And then all of these bizarro-land ideas have to be communicated to every member of the “we.”
And how can that be done?
Easy-peasy. Get them at a young age when they are still likely to believe in such fairy-tales, put them together in a room, and fill their heads will all of this day after day after day. Teach them to read so that they can access the newspapers delivering the same message on their own.*** Make sure that they are instructed in the language of the nation and not in the funny and strange “dialects” they might speak at home. The “we” need to be united by language as well.****
Has anybody ever wandered where the idea comes from that small children need to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school every day? Why at school and not the gym, the picnic, the street, etc.? Because that was the whole point of having everybody in a school.
* Remember the ridiculous debates as to who lived first in Israel? That’s exactly what nation-building does.
** How and when do you think literary criticism came about? And why do you think a literary critic (me) is so obsessed with the subject?
*** The massive appearance of newspapers and magazines in the XVIIIth century is also part of the whole process of nation-building.
**** This was not always entirely successful but the nation-state’s battle on language has always been and still is fierce. Why do you think Quebec is preventing the children of immigrants from attending schools in English and has even floated the possibility to control the language in which school-children conduct their private conversations?
24 thoughts on “Why Did the Nation-State Educate Everybody?”
Most of this is just mapping the self-image of the tribe/clan onto a larger entity.
And having undergone American public education (before it was eviscerated) fresh off the great compression and (still) relatively smaller levels of stratification and greater social solidarity than the US has now I can say that there was no attempt to convince us that Americans had been there forever.
We were told that the US was the birthplace of the greatest idea in human history (secular idea at least). And I had the distinct impression (though it was never said openly) that that idea was destined to take over the world (which has in fact largely happened though in very different ways than anyone imagined when I was in elementary school).
Oh, and state borders were somehow treated as immutable and existential and border changes in the state’s history was explained as people not realizing where the border was….
Though white and black Americans had settled where I grew up without displacing anyone – the Spanish had killed the original population (probably mostly through disease) and it had essentially been uninhabited for over a hundred years until about 50 years before I was born).
// works of art need explanations attached to them that will serve the process of this myth-making
How and when do you think literary criticism came about? And why do you think a literary critic (me) is so obsessed with the subject?
So, no nation state = no critics?
I have never thought about literary criticism this way. Turns out Soviet one was not the perversion of the ideal, but the ideal in its purest form. And that you talking at length about how individuals and society should react to the new world is also included in your job.
Despite reading your blog and other things, I have never thought literary criticism was inherently so political. Love that!
“I have never thought about literary criticism this way. Turns out Soviet one was not the perversion of the ideal, but the ideal in its purest form.”
“And that you talking at length about how individuals and society should react to the new world is also included in your job.”
\ An author would go on and on and on for maybe a thousand pages, demonstrating how Cervantes represents the eternal characteristics of the eternal Spanish people without quoting Cervantes’s works even a single time!!!
🙂 Thank you, it was (literally) funnier than any jokes one could tell.
I can share a joke too:
My mother: you love literature and literary criticism. Pity we don’t live in Soviet times anymore.
el: mother, they weren’t doing real criticism then! (*)
Mother: yes, but writing it was so easy.
(*) Now I see how mistaken I was. 🙂 May be, you know enough similar funny (and true!) things about literature, criticism and life in general to create a whole post? Like we had posts with jokes on your blog, but this time funny RL things.
\ Now it is up to us to articulate what our new task might be – or die out.
Won’t a market state still need literary critics?
Anyway, in our lifetimes, nation state will be sufficiently powerful to provide employment. So that will be the problem of next generation of academics, who will solve it themselves (or find a different job).
I have an even better story.
After long debates, it was decided that the writer who best articulated Spain ‘ s national identity was the eminent playwright Pedro Calderon. Critics agreed that Calderon described Spanish national identity in great detail even though Calderon died before the emergence of the nation-state and could have done nothing of the kind.
So to commemorate the 200 anniversary of Calderon ‘s death, an enormous theater festival was held in his honor. Many plays were put on, crowds of people attended, many speeches were made and many articles were written on the greatness and importance of Calderon and the beauty of his plays.
The only little problem with the festival, though, was that there were zero of Calderon ‘s plays there. Everybody talked for months about how important his plays were but nobody bothered to put them on stage. At the festival in his name. Because it isn’t really Calderon that everybody was celebrating. It was the nation-state that just happened to get associated with his name.
What’s curious is that nobody at the time noticed the weirdness of the situation.
That sounds so….. Spanish.
It reminds me of a public reading of Cervantes I heard about where each volunteer read one page out loud for the greater glory of Spain and its literature I presume. People happily waited hours and hours for their turn to read… but there was no one in the audience (even those patiently waiting their turn didn’t actually care about hearing Cervantes’ words)
“So, no nation state = no critics?”
Nooooo. There will be much more aspects and dimensions they will have to analyse. Good literary critics will thrive (at least until people read and write).
The problem is that a state of nature is by no means better than a myth. I’m not just referring to the problem of the nation-state, but to this notion in general. But let us talk about in in relation to the politics of nationalism versus underlying nature. Let us talk about Zimbabwe, which has arbitrary borders, defined by historical circumstance as well as broad geographical (rather than tribal-organic) features. There has been tribal warfare there ever since the beginning of history. Indeed, this phenomenon applies to the whole of Africa, I assume. If you remove the national borders, you are therefore not bound to have little pygmies sitting in a forest or noble savages (Western ideological constructs) but a return to organic nature, which will often invove the natural occurence of tribal war.
Get rid of the “myth” of the nation and you are still left with the “myth” of the tribe. Humans are, after all, myth-creating and inventive animals. If you reduce us down to the lowest, most organic levels, you will not only remove our myths, you will dehumanise us. Paradoxically making up artificial constructs and then adhering to them is what enables us to be human.
“Humans are, after all, myth-creating and inventive animals. If you reduce us down to the lowest, most organic levels, you will not only remove our myths, you will dehumanise us.”
As far as I can understand it right now the new state model moves from the “compulsory” myths that people were born into and couldn’t change (like nationality) towards the “optional” myths that individuals can choose from as the theory definitely talks about new kinds of human communities. Maybe I don’t understand it well, but now it seems to me that in the post-nation state model myths will still exist, but there will be a new kind of myth-choosing mechanism introduced. Everyone will choose their own customized myths which wasn’t possible before.
That sounds like a repetition of the postmodernist dream that we will all choose our own identities. Like postmodernism, though, this model may also fail to the extent that it maintains an abstract notion of humanity as virtually disembodied beings operating on the indiluted principle of “free choice”. But you are I know that there are always going to be power relations and aqueducts.
“Like postmodernism, though, this model may also fail to the extent that it maintains an abstract notion of humanity as virtually disembodied beings operating on the indiluted principle of “free choice”.”
In my understanding not free choice of identities, but customized identities. That doesn’t exclude the different forms of manipulation and the existence of power relations. Maybe everyone will choose on their own level, and most choices will be misinformed.
Real choice requires knowledge and/or power that most people don’t possess. The interesting question for me is what will be the main source of power. I wonder whether it is possible that the main source of power will be knowledge, and knowledge will be out there for free or close to free, and anyone who wants it will be able to take it, but most people won’t want to take it because of their lower intellectual needs / lack of understanding.
“In my understanding not free choice of identities, but customized identities. ”
Yeah. A very low level of customized identities, but they’re still customized, and people still choose them on their own (of course after their mind and worldview was processed through a solid manipulation machinery).
“A very low level of customized identities, but they’re still customized, and people still choose them on their own (of course after their mind and worldview was processed through a solid manipulation machinery).”
Even in the generation of our mothers these were not real options.
“I wonder whether it is possible that the main source of power will be knowledge, and knowledge will be out there for free or close to free, and anyone who wants it will be able to take it, but most people won’t want to take it because of their lower intellectual needs / lack of understanding.”
This is what I am seeing. You can get a tremendous amount of very useful information from the Internet, but most people are locked into narrow worlds, despite this.
On the positive side, we can say that, given this Darwinistic understanding I have been explaining, there is now no longer any need to actively combat trolls on the Internet. If someone expresses a lack of belief in knowledge, we can cut them loose with a clean conscience, knowing that they at least had the opportunity to educate themselves and turned it down.
I’ve just got to quote a really interesting blogegr on this subject:
It may be so. What I see is that some people, who do really care about humanity, lament the fact that there are a lot of people out there, acting as leaders, who are actually not doing humanity a good turn. You can have a lot of charismatic people out there who are really turning people’s unfortunate but commonplace injuries into an ideology. The gender warriors are a case in point.
I think we can keep lamenting and lamenting that this is so. But would you stand in the way of a river in flood to try to block it from taking the wrong direction?
We need to get out of the way of the idiots right now, and let them take the direction that they choose. Many, many of them are attacking anything at all that has the slighest whiff of “elitism” about it. We need to understand that they are opening up a gap between a new elite and themselves. That is what they are doing.
For instance. If someone says “I can’t understand Irigaray because she is a stupid philosopher!” does that mean that I, also, cannot understand Irigaray. Or, indeed, that Irigary could not be understood by someone who had taken the time to study French philosophy, especially Jacques Lacan, and who had read a lot of Nietzsche and some of the ancient Greek philosophical texts?
–No, it does not! That much is not changed by the troll’s pronouncement.
What is more likely to be changed is that a lot of people will follow in the path of the stupid troll, by believing that Irigaray cannot be understood. In this way, a significant gap will start to open up between those capable of understanding and those that are easily persuaded by common emotional appeals.
Funny, the paragraph about the ‘we’ is so on point. This is literally the kind of stuff that India’s new, Hindu, right-wing government is sponsoring:
Five dimensions of a Virat Hindustan to usher in a National Renaissance:
Rediscover the Identity of an Indian,
Project the correct Indian history,
Promote Sanskrit as a link language,
Integral Humanism as an economic philosophy, &
Ram Rajya as model for good Governance
“Sanskrit as a link language”
Interestingly the page does not seem to have a Sanskrit version (or a version in any other Indic or Dravidian language)…
The Québec State should help all non-French speakers to assimilate in French.
And it is helping. I remember there was even a program where immigrants were paid salaries to learn the language. They could dedicate themselves 100% to learning French. Does that still exist?
It’s not as good as it was, because Québec Liberal Party was afraid that they will become separatists.