Modern Languages

Our Civilizing Mission – In Conversation with Nicholas Harrison

Nicholas Harrison’s recent addition to the Contemporary French and Francophone Cultures series, Our Civilizing Mission, is both an exploration of colonial education and a response to current anxieties about the foundations of the ‘humanities’. Focusing on the example of Algeria, it asks what can be learned by treating colonial education not just as an example of colonialism but as a provocative, uncomfortable example of education. We discussed this new publication with the author.9781786941763

Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Our Civilising Mission and what inspired you to focus your research in this area?

For many years I’ve taught French-language writing from the Maghreb, mainly Algeria, and very often writers talk about their experiences of colonial education. Any Algerian who grew up under colonialism and got enough education to become a writer almost certainly spent time in a school where Muslim children were in a tiny minority, and were often made to feel they didn’t fit in. Those experiences come up a lot in fiction by writers like Djebar, Dib, Memmi and Feraoun, and that material was my starting point.

When historians of colonialism or anti-colonial writers like Said or Fanon talk about colonial education, they treat it, naturally enough, as an example of colonialism. My book looks at writers’ experiences of education (including Said’s, actually) partly from that perspective. But the book also asks what it would mean to treat colonial education as an example of education.

So did you want to offer a defence of colonial education?

Not at all. I’ve never had any interest in rehabilitating colonial education as such. I wanted to think more precisely about what was colonial about colonial education. On one level, I wanted to understand what it was that ‘worked’ for someone like Djebar, by her own account, in her education, even though she also made it very clear that colonial schools were marked by racism, hypocrisy, inconsistency around ‘laïcité’ for Muslims, and so on. And I was fascinated that someone like Feraoun could remain committed to colonial education even after his politics became unequivocally anti-colonial. He continued working in colonial education – and writing novels – right through the Algerian war of independence – and eventually that cost him his life.

On another level, I wanted to raise questions about the ‘coloniality’ or normativity of education in other contexts. Schools and universities always, in a sense, impose a particular culture on their students, making them read one book rather than another, study a particular set of historical or geographical topics and not others, use a certain language, and so on. In that respect colonial education can be seen as an extreme example of a wider phenomenon. Seeing things from that angle certainly doesn’t provide any legitimation of colonialism as such. Conversely, it doesn’t mean that all normativity in education is illegitimate. But in all education systems there are tricky issues around the relationship between, on the one hand, the system’s particular educational culture, and on the other hand students’ personal or wider cultures, all shaped by differences of class, region, ethnicity, gender, religious background and so on. The book tries to explore some of that territory through the prism of colonial education.

You taught English at the University of Tunis in the mid-1980s – what was that experience like and did this in any way influence your interest in colonialism?

That was a huge influence on me! I didn’t travel much outside the UK when I was growing up, let alone outside Europe. When I saw there was a chance to spend my undergraduate year abroad in Tunisia, I thought I should take it. The teaching itself wasn’t very rewarding, to tell the truth: my job was to help deliver a rather old-fashioned language-lab course that involved a lot of rote learning. But I enjoyed getting to know the students, and all in all I had a fantastic year. It left me with a long-term interest in the Maghreb, in colonialism, and in so-called ‘francophone’ literature. I was at Cambridge and at that time there was no opportunity to study any francophone literature there, or in most other universities. It wasn’t until I got a research fellowship, after my PhD, that I was able to start work in that area. I read a lot of postcolonial theory, and studied Arabic, but my first motive was to put myself in a position where I could teach ‘francophone’ literature to undergraduates. One of the central themes in the book is the writers’ experience of studying literature; that gave me a chance to reflect on their attitudes to literary practice and literary culture, and also on my own work as a teacher.

What are you going to be working on next?

I want to keep working on topics around colonial education, and education more widely. In the short term I’m writing an essay about Feraoun’s work as a teacher, and another essay about Kechiche’s film L’Esquive. That’s a long way from the historical material in Our Civilizing Mission, obviously! – But it raises some of the same big questions about who gets to study what, and what they get out of it.

For more information on Our Civilizing Mission, please visit our website.


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