Curriculum History

Beyond Cause and Effect: Assessing Colonialism, Part III

Curricular framing of imperialism in high school World History classes often bears the marks of the Western Civilization courses that preceded them

I recently covered turn of the twentieth century imperialism and colonialism for the second of three times this year (regular World History, recently in AP, and will again during third trimester). Presenting this topic should involve much more than defining imperialism and showing changing colors on a map. Colonialism had consequences, often horrific, for millions of people around the world.  Contextualizing images of colonialism is one aspect of presenting a fuller picture. World History teachers must also attend to how we frame it.  Otherwise, a unit that should be global can reproduce colonial hierarchies by marginalizing the colonized in the narrative.

Curricular framing of imperialism in high school World History classes often bears the marks of the Western Civilization courses that preceded them. In a Western Civ narrative European imperialism is one of the MAIN causes of WWI, and as such can be discussed with only cursory attention paid to colonized people.  The imperial rivalries themselves can be represented by colors on a map, or with facile cartoons.  The “Scramble for Africa,” as seen on this teacher webpage, is particularly prone to this treatment.  If discussed at all, the impact on the people living in these areas is often represented by dehumanizing images lacking contextualization.  Other images used in textbooks show the racist attitudes that were part of colonialism in the form of edifying pictures of European imperialists, such as Henry Stanley and Cecil Rhodes, or racist illustrations of colonized people in Africa, Asia, and Oceania produced by imperialists.  Such images can and should be part of a broader discussion of colonialism, but foregrounding them without context reinforces many students impressions of people of color as marginal.  One way to avoid such Eurocentric framing is to eschew organizing the study of colonialism around causes and effects.

Instead of discrete motivations I’ve been presenting students with some of the concepts often listed as causes–racism, industrial capitalism, great power rivalries–as aspects or dimensions of colonialism.  Conceptualizing colonialism as the product of discernible motivations focuses attention on European actions and elides the agency of colonizers and colonized alike. It risks determinism and is too limiting.  Teachers and textbooks sometimes use demeaning depictions of colonial peoples by imperialists to demonstrate “motivations.”  These images, however, demonstrate that causes and effects are not easily separated.  Racist soap advertisements, for instance, alluded to existing colonial empires.  The white supremacist ideology on display in them was an effect of colonial relationships, while also an example of attitudes that encouraged imperialism.

Similarly and significantly, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “White Man’s Burden” is often explicitly used or invoked to explain imperialist motivations . Simple chronology, however, tells us that this is not plausible.  British imperialism was well underway by 1899 when Kipling published the poem.  Kipling was literally a child of colonialism, having been born in British controlled India to English parents.  A poem that he wrote at the age of 33 could clearly not have caused British colonialism in India.  In fact, Kipling’s praise of imperialism is better understood as an effect of his childhood in an elite colonial family.  The racism on display in White Man’s Burden was part of  a dynamic or a dimension of colonialism that included scientific racism and political domination  When looking closely at economic and political aspects of colonialism, I also find cause and effect to be intertwined.

Photograph of a west African man with head scarf and traditional robe
Samory Touré (1830–1900), born in Guinea, resisted French colonialism until he was captured in 1898.

I have  shifted this framing with “causes” more effectively than with “effects.”  In particular I want to more clearly integrate indigenous re/actions and colonial legacies into the discussion of colonialism itself. In addition to an understanding of European rivalries that lead to the Great War, I want students to see the emergence of modern African and Asian states in this unit.  Right now I mostly reserve these topics for a later unit that includes decolonization.  As such my students learn about Gandhi a month after we critique Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” despite the two men being born in the same decade (1860s).

I am wondering now what it would look like to organize the entire unit around modes of resistance. The dynamics of imperialism, including more collaborative responses among colonized peoples, could be explored within this context.  Resources exist for this approach. The Stanford History Education Group recently added a lesson on the Women’s War in colonial Nigeria.  Their already published Battle of Adwa and Indian (aka Sepoy) Rebellion lessons form a possible starting point.  The New York Public Library’s website contains a useful page on African resistance to colonialism with an essay and images, including the photograph of Samory Toure. I can imagine either incorporating this approach into my current photograph assessment, or thinking bigger, creating a larger, project-based task.   I am open to suggestion and would love to hear the thoughts of other World History teachers.

UPDATE: #whapchat discussion on women in World History brought a couple of additional resources to my attention: another lesson on the Nigerian Women’s War and a great looking activity on women in Africa talking back to colonialism.  I have one more shot at teaching colonialism this year, and I plan to work in at least one of these lessons.

UPDATE 2: Anoka HS World History Collaborative team is working on this now, too.  One member is trying the second lesson from this World History for Us All Close Up Unit.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

4 replies on “Beyond Cause and Effect: Assessing Colonialism, Part III”

[…] In total contrast, simulating European imperialism in Africa with students claiming elements of their classroom strips the Berlin Conference of any context and presents only one aspect (great power competition) of one set of historical actors (European imperialists). This approach elides colonial agency and debates within imperialist countries. More importantly, it turns-a great human tragedy into a mirth-inducing game. As I’ve written before I find this deeply problematic. […]

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