An Ideology of Ignorance: How Injustice Prevails

Sep 14, 2020 10:15:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf offers a perspective on how education abroad benefits students as they explore the nuances and critical differences in culture and society as it pertains to conversations surrounding universal issues such as injustice and inequality outside of their home environments.

Urgent Conversations: Race and Identity

We are acutely and urgently aware of the need to have nuanced, intelligent conversations about issues of race and ethnicity. Education abroad has the potential to enrich these discussions, to explore social inequalities within and beyond the borders of the USA by freeing students from the constraints of their domestic experience.

Education abroad offers an environment particularly suited to demonstrate that subjectivity and selectivity permeates the creation of national narratives. Countries are defined by the stories they tell, expressed in multiple forms ranging from the presentation of history in school textbooks, to populist assumptions, to national anthems, and to the iconography of tourism. Ideologies and myths embedded in those narratives inevitably validate certain experiences and voices over those of others.

The degree to which these stories are true or not is of less significance than the impact they have upon a dominant ethos. The line between religious faith and national myth is frequently blurred. The notion of “faith” signifies that the message relayed is both unverifiable and powerful. Nations with faith affiliations may indeed build identity around religious rhetoric. Even before landing on the coast of America in 1630, John Winthrop used the metaphor of “the city on the hill” to establish a special intimacy between nation and God. American politicians, including in more recent times John Kennedy, Reagan, Obama, Romney, and Cruz, have employed the phrase to express the idea of American exceptionalism. “The city on the hill” is the image Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount to signal a location of special spiritual significance.

National anthems also characterize national mythologies. The stories told in these songs are, however, subject to change in response to external dynamics. The British anthem implores God to save the Queen and to make her glorious and victorious. The second verse, now no longer sung, asks God to “scatter her enemies… confound their politics … frustrate their knavish tricks.” This is not the language of international collaboration although the “knavish tricks” of foreigners was a thought just beneath the surface of the Brexit campaign. The third verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” has also been wisely excluded as it asserts that “No refuge could save the hireling or slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” “Great Lenin” and “Stalin our leader with faith in our people,” celebrated in the Soviet Anthem, have no presence in that of The Russian Federation.

The stories countries tell about themselves indicate unique relationships with some combination of God, destiny, and history. No national anthem suggests that the country is somewhat similar to its neighbors. Events are chosen to demonstrate bravery, resistance to oppression, moral exceptionalism, and other qualities that define a distinctive national community. These stories are also altered over time to exclude embarrassing, unsavory, even shameful attitudes and actions.

Thus, in Eastern and Central Europe countries have reconfigured their roles in the events of the 20th century. Poland, for example, has essentially rebranded itself through a “double-occupation” theory or excuse. In this way, Poland had no responsibility for the Holocaust and was a victim of Soviet oppression, rather than a complicit partner in Nazi anti-Semitism and an ideological ally of the Soviets. Both versions of Polish history have some credibility but, for obvious reasons, the national identity is shaped around the idea that the country was a victim of Nazi and Soviet dictatorship. Austria has similarly reinterpreted the Anschluss, meaning union or connection. Germany’s annexation of the country in 1938 was widely welcomed by a majority of Austrians as a means of creating a dominant Germanic presence in Europe. After the war, complicity and enthusiasm for the Nazi cause was reconfigured to create a fiction that Austria was an unwilling victim of German aggression.

Austrian Citizens Welcome Nazi TroopsAustrian citizens welcome Nazi troops

Countries engage in a process that is analogous to branding, a simplification and crystallization of a positive identity. Experiences and events that contradict the national myth are excluded or regarded as unpatriotic subversion. One idea of America, for example, emphasizes equality of opportunity. Inequalities based on class, region, and race, are disruptive of that national myth and are, thus, muted in conventional mainstream narratives. Conditions or events that radically challenge the national story are likely to generate conflict, repression, resistance, and denial.

Black Lives Matter ProtesterA Black Lives Matter protester.

1960 Civil Rights Movement Compared to Black Lives Matter Movement
1960 Civil Rights Movement compared to Black Lives Matter Movement.

What is known as “subaltern studies” are designed precisely to validate the voices and experiences of the unheard and unseen. In so doing, underlying assumptions and ideologies, constructed as a “higher” set of principles, emerge from the fog of mythologies. Deconstruction reveals the underlying values to which the dispossessed are expected to aspire if they are ever to be worthy of some form of equity. The idea of a hierarchy of values and principles embeds inequality within the nation and between nations. If one set of beliefs, institutions or peoples are defined as superior, it follows that others are inferior.

Hidden Histories

To recognize the experiences and voices of the underrepresented and to listen to the voices of the silenced, history needs to be rendered more complex; a unitary view of the past necessarily privileges the experience of one group over another. History has to give way to histories. Social justice and intellectual integrity demand the widening of national and regional narratives. For example, the development of England’s urban centers, such as Hull, Bristol, Liverpool, and London, had much to do with the slave trade. Medieval Christian mythology shaped the persecution of Roma (gypsies) and Jews in Europe over centuries. Migration patterns across Europe had origins in minority retreat from the encroachment of the Spanish Inquisition.

Hidden histories, such as these, need to be liberated from the burden of ignorance, indifference, or hostility. The dominance of a western intellectual and artistic tradition has excluded important voices from other regions and perspectives. The inclusion of those into the educational agenda rebalances, broadens, and enriches collective consciousness. The western tradition matters but it is not the only thing that matters.

Thus, we continue to teach the works of significant writers within the western tradition because of literary value, and the manner in which universal experience may be embedded in specific contexts. The validity of other representations should not lead to censorship on ideological grounds. Studying Chinua Achebe, for example, should not exclude reading Graham Greene, Scott Fitzgerald, or Ernest Hemingway. There are critical obligations, nevertheless, to review how we teach those writers.

The first obligation is to teach the traditional “canon” in a fashion that respects valid contributions to our understanding of the past and present while, simultaneously, deconstructing the implicit or explicit value system within. The second is to recognize that stories outside of the western tradition enrich understanding of the human condition.

This would seem to be a simple proposition. Humanity has diverse experiences and multiple ways of expressing those. No innate superiority derives from the context in which they originate. However obvious this may seem, it is politically controversial. In these fractured times, what is obvious and simple may simply not be so. The illusion of some form of liberal consensus has evaporated in the face of militant parochialism and xenophobia; the notion of value in diversity conflicts with ideologies based upon hierarchies of race, religion, or nation.

We have a responsibility to empower students to comprehend that the things they may believe, and those we may believe, do not represent universal truths. By disrupting those assumptions, students are given the great gift of uncertainty.

What Tools Do We Need?

The disciplines critical to this agenda are rooted in the social science and humanities. Specifically, through history experiences hidden by orthodoxy become apparent. Through literature, the voices of the silenced are heard. Ironically however, in many parts of the world the humanities have been designated as less relevant, deprived of funding, and declared a frippery.

A few examples will suffice:

In 2015, the Japanese Ministry of Education sent a notice to “presidents of national universities …telling them to either abolish their departments …devoted to the humanities and social sciences or shift their curricula to fields with greater utilitarian values.” [1]

In June 2020, Australian education minister Dan Tehan (who has an arts degree from the University of Melbourne) outlined plans for a varied fee structure in which vocational and STEM students will enjoy tuition discounts ranging from 20 to 62%. Students studying the humanities face a draconian increase of 113 per cent. [2]

Will Davies argues that the UK government is conducting a “culture war which …. coalesces around one theme in particular: hostility towards the modern humanities, and their elevated status in British public life.” [3]

The Prime Minister’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, an implacable opponent of the humanities, studied history at Oxford.

Traditional defenses of the humanities are simply inadequate in the face of such philistinism. It is important to recognize that the humanities teach the soft skills that employers tell us they need. [4]

Studying in the humanities enriches sensibilities, teaches analytical skills, and the capacity to speak, listen, read, and write effectively etc. etc. These credible arguments make little or no impact upon the wall of ideological disdain with which they collide.

The STEM disciplines are of profound significance, but they do not represent all that matters. We privilege one kind of knowledge over another at our peril. There is no conflict between science and humanities but instead the potential to enrich human knowledge through mutual respect and creative dialogue. To privilege one kind of knowledge over another is a form of blindness. To listen only to the voices that echo our own is a kind of deafness.

Michael Ignatieff, Rector and President of the Central European University, argued that in the current pandemic scientists have an obviously critical role, but we will also need to analyze the social determinants of health, and identify the unequal impact of COVID-19 within countries and across the world. The tools needed for that research are in the social sciences and humanities. [5]

The word “humanities” does more than designate a cluster of disciplines. The plural form signifies the importance of diverse perspectives. There is not one version of humanity. To believe in the primary significance of your version of community, country, tribe, race or whatever is to designate others as lesser beings. Thus, we are free to ignore them, lynch them, burn them, treat them as unworthy of the attention or compassion of the übermensch. This is not a question of defending disciplines under siege; it is about defending human values.

Post-Colonialism and the Humanities

The Post-Colonial Studies Reader [6] consists of 526 pages and more than 86 contributions; only one essay of 5 pages relates to STEM disciplines. The rest of the volume demonstrates that postcolonial studies are rooted in the humanities and social sciences. [7]

Rhetoric that privileges STEM disciplines derives from a view that technology and science drive progress and are the primary means of development and empowerment: a neocolonialist assumption that it is in the interest of all nations to align with western priorities. In contrast, postcolonial studies question the primacy of technology in the development of country or region. Without denigrating the importance of science and technology, postcolonial prioritizes identity representation and voice as critical in the construction of alternative national identities. Literature and history are at the heart of resistance and reconstruction, tools of social and political justice. Postcolonial studies restore the significance of humanities to the center of intellectual and political relevance.

The Empire Writes Back

The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies

One of the paradoxes we examine in our forthcoming occasional paper Empires of the Mind? is that while there is widespread recognition that explorations of race, ethnicity and decolonization are essential to the development of a civil society, the disciplines that empower students to go beyond superficial reiterations of inherited attitudes are those from which funding has been reduced or eliminated.

Educators need to affirm the humanities and social sciences for their specific and critical value in the current environment. Political policies privilege studies in STEM areas. The hierarchy of knowledge created serves the ideologies of the status quo, stifles reform, impoverishes challenges to dominant orthodoxies. Whether by accident or intent, a consequence is the repression of serious learning and teaching in ostensibly urgent areas of race, ethnicity, colonization, and decolonization. In these circumstances, the aspiration to identify and eradicate systemic racism is just windy rhetoric.

Heightened emotions, stimulated by outrage at racial violence in the USA, have generated a rising tide of empathy, and symbolic gestures of solidarity in many parts of the world. At the beginning of every soccer match in the UK, for example, players and officials express that solidarity by kneeling and wearing shirts that bear the message “Black Lives Matter.”

Kneeling Football (soccer) TeamsKneeling football (soccer) teams.

This is both remarkable and moving. It is not, however, the same as thoughtful analysis that points in the direction of effective action.

Students need to understand that discrimination and inequality are universal problems. A principle of inclusivity requires that attention be paid to others who suffer prejudice in places beyond our experience. We cannot convincingly argue for justice for some while being ill-informed of, or indifferent to, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, the plight of the Roma, the expulsion of the Chagos Islanders, government sanctioned persecution of the Rohingya.

Rohingya RefugeesRohingya refugees.

The pursuit of wisdom that might bring real change partly depends upon the power of physics to explain how the world works. Simultaneously, the pursuit of wisdom that might bring real change partly depends upon the power of history to explain how the world works. The future of humanity ultimately requires replacing simplistic assumptions with a recognition of nuanced complexities of reality. At this moment, the humanities and social sciences, critical to countering irrational prejudice, are under sustained assault inspired by populist political ideologies that favor closed-minded parochialism over values that openly embrace the diversity of the human family.

Anger at injustice and passion for inclusion are righteous emotions but without the strength of analysis and the power of knowledge they are unlikely to erode, let alone eradicate, shameful discrimination and deadly persecution within nations and across the divided globe. The prospect before us is that instead of enlightenment, stereotypes remain unexamined and unchallenged. An ethos of ignorance masquerades as ideology; myopic stupidity prevails.


[1] Takamitsu Sawa, “Humanities under attack,” The Japan Times, August 23, 2015. 

[2] John Ross, “Radical changes to Australia’s fees,” Times Higher Education, June 18, 2020. 

[3] Will Davies, The Guardian, February 28, 2020. 

[4] See for example articles by Ben Tucker, co-founder of Minerva, and Johnny C. Taylor Jnr. (President and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Managers in Career Integration: Review in the Impact of Experience Abroad on Employment eds Colon, Gristwood and Woolf. CAPA: The Global Education Network, Boston, 2020. pp. 168- 175.

[5] Michael Ignatieff, “Finding Balance and Resilience on Shifting Ground,” EAIE Community Summit June 17, Zoom conference.

[6] The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, eds Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. Routledge, London and New York, 1995.

[7] This may explain to a degree why attacks on the humanities appear less virulent and sustained in Africa and Latin America.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, Diversity Abroad