Writing in 1902, Jacob Gould Schurman, Cornell’s 3rd President and the chairman of the American commission for the colonization of the Philippines, declared that the colonized subjects of the newly expanded American Empire must be “taught to govern themselves as Americans or Englishmen govern themselves.”
Flash forward 52 years, and Cornell again finds itself as part of a mission civilisatrice, this time in Indonesia. With the help of $224,000 from the Ford Foundation, Cornell’s Modern Indonesia Project is founded; the wayang puppets tucked away in the Johnson Art Museum’s 5th floor are a testament to the project’s success. As Cornell faculty travel to Indonesia to assist in the education of a newly independent nation, Cornell’s pedagogy is injected into the curriculum of a new elite pedigree. As David Ransom argues, “Cornell's elite-oriented studies are what the universities use to teach post-Independence politics and history” in Indonesia.
This education carried with it the same paternalistic assumptions as Schurman had set forward at the inception of America’s colonial expansion decades earlier. Cornell’s educators did not believe in either case that Filipinos or Indonesians could govern themselves (and, by extension, the precious resources like oil, rubber, and labor that they presided over) in the best interests of humanity (“humanity”, in this case, being the imperialist nations). And the results were exactly the same in both cases. A small elite was trained in the capitalist method of economy, the colonial school of governance (as junior partners), and above all in the American way of thought. In the Philippines and in Indonesia, that American-oriented elite would govern in the interests of American imperialism, directing the flow of resources and cheap labor directly to American corporations and violently suppressing anyone who questioned their American pedagogy. In Indonesia, an estimated 1 million communists would be murdered in a massive slaughter that the U.S. embassy encouraged. That result was inevitable from the day the American Empire had decided to impose a certain worldview on Indonesia. American education came in many forms, with the military offering direct tutorship through manuals on torture and violence, but the education gifted by Cornell was the most violent of all: it brought “science” and “philosophy” meant only to inculcate a nation in its own destruction.
It should come as no surprise that Cornell promotes colonial pedagogy; as a university, like all other American universities, it is a product of the violent dispossession of indigenous people. Cornell’s history is interlaced with the expulsion of the Gayogohó:no' people through the 1862 Morrill Land Grab Act. As Sir Hilary Beckles, a Barbadian scholar and activist, argued in a lecture here earlier this semester, universities and academics played a central role in providing the ideological justifications for the expansion of settler colonialism and slavery in the United States through disciplines like economics, philosophy, anthropology, and political “science”, where academics offered arguments legitimizing domination and exploitation. As Beckles argued, “white supremacy was articulated in the university sector”. In the 20th century, this expanded beyond the borders of Turtle Island to enable the rise of American imperialism; the discipline of international relations was invented to justify brutality and interventionism by imperialist “civilized” states within “backwards” nations. Everywhere, academics carried the torch for imperialism, promoting discourse like “modernization” and “civilization” to impose capitalist exploitation throughout the world in the guise of “development”.
Our university continues to provide ideological ammunition alongside Washington’s Bullets today. In Occupied Palestine, Cornell sponsors research conducted by settler institutions like the Technion Institute of Technology to develop new sinister devices to crush the Palestinian resistance. Cornell Engineering is the worst offender, perpetually partnered with the most odious arms manufacturers and defense contractors whose “dynamic innovations” and “research opportunities” manifest as ordnance dropped on Yemeni children.
Knowing all that we know about Cornell’s past and present, we should expect nothing emancipatory from the pedagogy we received here if we choose to be another cog in that machine - just another engineering student shipped off to work for a war criminal, another business major ready to calculate a profit margin from the dividends of suffering capitalism creates. When the university exists as an enterprise, pedagogy becomes nothing more than onboarding. When we embrace this pedagogy, the education that emphasizes inertness and inactivity, passivity and objectivity, we are left to die at the altar of careerism, fully convinced that nothing we can do will make any difference, and we therefore should feel no guilt becoming just another well-trained manager.
Our only alternative is the revolutionary pedagogy of action. We cannot reform our university; as it currently exists, the notion of a university is irredeemably integrated into capitalism and imperialism. The ideal of the university as a haven for radical ideas was always a mythology in America as long as pontification could occur on stolen land; but today we are further away than ever from that myth, as the university has brazenly adopted the characteristics of a purely career-oriented institution.
Whatever revolutionary education we wish to gain here has had to be independent, with the few radical professors who ask us to question our surroundings, and they are few and far between. The vast majority of educators wish only to reproduce an intractable hierarchy in every aspect of their teaching. That is their pedagogy; ours must be one of our own choosing, one committed to the abolition of the method of education premised on mystification, alienation, and exploitation. We are students now under a pedagogy of oppression, and at the end of our four years as students we abandon all learning and concretize our worldview into the rigid discipline of oppression as we emerge on the other end of the conveyor belt. But should any of us, as we must, embrace the pedagogy of liberation, we remain students under its teaching, committed to its exigencies, for our entire lives.
By The Cadre Journal