One Tool of “Critical Thinking” That’s Done More Harm Than Good

Photo Credit: Steve Castillo

Last week, a high school freshman’s history homework made the news. When Cece Walsh’s public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, asked her to list “Positive” and “Negative Effects of Imperialism,” she filled in the second column but left the first one blank. In a note below the empty column, she explained that “asking us to identify positives of imperialism, something that killed thousands and contributed to slavery, is extremely … disrespectful to people whose ancestors were murdered because of colonization.” Her sister Calla Walsh, a senior, shared an image of the homework on Twitter, outraged that her little sister was being asked to list “ ‘POSITIVE EFFECTS’ OF IMPERIALISM??????” and the tweet went viral. Coincidentally, just two days earlier, Britain’s own equalities minister had declared that both the positives and negatives of the British Empire must be taught in British schools, provoking pushback there, too.

In another progressive American public high school, in Palo Alto, California, where my child is enrolled, ninth and 10th graders read William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel’s World History textbook (ninth edition, 2018), which similarly insists that “neither extreme position [of arguing for or against colonialism] is justified”—invalidating, in a stroke, the epoch-making mass struggles for freedom led by figures like Gandhi and Nkrumah. Stoically valorizing “balance,” the textbook echoes Victorian defenses of empire with lines like this: “British governance over the subcontinent brought order and stability to a society that had been rent by civil war. … British control … led to relatively honest and efficient government that … operated to the benefit of the average Indian” (a claim that flies in the face of scholarship since at least the 19th century). As my child observed in her school newspaper, the book draws up its concluding “balance sheet” by way of a cast of white male scholars (some with shaky claims to expertise). A chapter about the rule of Europeans over Africans and Asians astonishingly neglects to include the perspective of a single historian of color or even a woman. This reading lesson was followed by an in-class debate on the pros and cons of empire.

When I raised my concern with this lesson and debate, as a parent, descendant of anti-colonial activists, and historian of Britain and its empire, I found the high school history faculty and leadership exceedingly receptive. They, too, felt something amiss in the lesson, but struggled to find alternative materials and frameworks. Cece Walsh’s teacher likewise sympathized with her objection and explained that the lesson was part of the state-mandated curriculum, so the best they could do was supply additional readings offering other points of view.

But the social media response to Cece Walsh’s homework revealed the source of the stickiness of colonial-era frameworks for studying empire. Many of those who disagreed with the tweet argued that tallying the pros and cons of empire promotes critical thinking—perhaps without realizing that in doing so, they were uncritically endorsing an approach long favored by British governments precisely for its propagandistic uses. The current Conservative government, nurturing an unapologetic nostalgia for empire, insists, like U.S. states curtailing the teaching of the history of slavery, on a rosy national historical narrative that inspires pride in dominant groups.

It turns out that assessing the truth of the claim that a balance-sheet approach to empire is good for critical thinking is itself an opportunity to flex our critical thinking skills: Does such an approach actually hone our analytical skills, or does it whitewash empire? Is Calla Walsh right that “forcing students into the mental exercise of justifying/rationalizing genocide because of its supposed ‘positive effects’ itself perpetuates genocide and indoctrinates them into supporting an imperial war machine”? Listing pros and cons is never an ideal way to study history, whose purpose is understanding rather than judgment, but there are historical reasons it remains such a common approach to studying the history of the British Empire in particular. As I describe in my recent book Time’s Monster, historians within the British political elite long used the “balance sheet” concept to justify imperialism. Today’s pedagogical exercises have to be understood as descendants of this lineage.

Weighing pros and cons depends, firstly, on the premise that European overseas imperialism was a politically and morally legitimate form of rule—a false premise that subverts the laborious and sacrificial work of the generations who fought to end empire on the grounds that it was illegitimate, and won that argument, changing the world in the 20th century era of decolonization. It’s not that what’s positive or negative depends on perspective—that plantation owners saw booming sugar colonies as “positive,” while enslaved people saw them as “negative”—but that oppressive systems are not good for anyone, reducing even those who benefit materially to greed and brutality, mutilating their humanity, in a way that even English authors like George Orwell made clear. We can’t list “plantation owner wealth” or “policing jobs for lower-class Britons” as “positive” effects of a system that, these very effects confirm, was founded on racism and violence.

And we don’t weigh the pros and cons of racist European despotisms—for instance, fascist regimes—as if they were legitimate. No historian in her right mind would say, “Yes, Hitler was horrible to the Jews, but on the other hand, he built the autobahn!” The question is not when and where the imperial state erred or failed or proved incompetent, but why we presume an illegitimate form of government could do anything but err and fail and prove incompetent.

Here, those “pro” the use of a pros-and-cons balance sheet often object that the British Empire was not the moral abyss of Nazism. However, applying critical thinking here, it becomes apparent that Nazism and British imperialism do not have to have been the same for both to have been illegitimate, racist, and violent in different ways. (We don’t even need to go into the ways Nazism drew from the well of British imperial experience, or the common origins of Nazism, slavery, and apartheid in the wider phenomenon of European imperialism, which thinkers as different as Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire pointed out in the last century.)

South African apartheid, for instance, is also not the same thing as Nazism. Like colonialism, it inspired a movement for change and yielded to change, and we are able to teach its history critically without asking students to defend its “positive effects”—since its illegitimacy and immorality have already been proved and accepted. Similarly, since the controversy around Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), respectable scholars no longer enumerate the pros and cons of American slavery (which was also not the same as Nazism). We have agreed, together (at least in states like California and Massachusetts), that slavery was a moral wrong that cannot be redeemed.

The fact that we have not arrived at such a consensus on the British Empire testifies to the success with which our pedagogy allows it to be continually re-legitimized, despite the anti-colonial struggles of the last century. Our very focus on imperialism’s worst excesses, such as Nazism and slavery, has kept us from condemning the enabling context of these atrocities—imperialism itself, which we continue to redeem with lists of pros, enabling new bouts of imperialist adventure like the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (Indeed, equivocation on imperialism has, arguably, kept the door cracked open for people who seek to undermine the unambiguous condemnation of Nazism and slavery, in our own time.) Recognizing empire’s intrinsic illegitimacy and dependence on violence and exploitation does not imply a belief in British malignancy, any more than recognizing the violence of Nazism implies a belief in Germans as existentially evil. It is merely a call to honor the values that decolonization affirmed: a world of racial, political, and economic equality.

Secondly, totting up pros and cons rests on a fallacy of counterfactual history, the idea that, absent the British presence, there would be no railroads or dams or any sort of “progress” in places like India. This sort of thinking reproduces the legitimizing racist narratives of European empire—the idea that India would have no history without the British presence, that it would have stood still in time. We already know that pre-colonial trends in management of food security and water were better suited to the region than the practices introduced by the British. Moreover, the British worked hard from the beginning to stifle indigenous manufacturing. Those still skeptical of the possibility of an alternate-history Indian industrial takeoff might at least be persuaded that there is no evidence that Indians would not have been as good at imitating British industry as the Japanese and Germans proved to be. The British ensured that they did not have an opportunity to do so, for they needed India to supply raw materials.

The very structure of textbooks like the one my daughter’s school uses impedes such alternate-history thinking. This textbook presents as “opposing views” on the matter of empire not the views of an anti-colonial figure and a colonial figure, but those of two colonial figures, who wrote at the height of the British Empire: Rudyard Kipling and E.D. Morel, a critic of colonial violence who was nevertheless as invested as the arch-imperialist Kipling in “the government of Africa by white men.” Left off the table are the voices of the colonized and the counterfactual histories such colonial thinkers could not conceive: Africa ruled by Africans, a West Indies in which ex-slaves rather than ex–slave owners had received reparations, South Asian states left to sort out their own destinies and “development.” Criticism like Morel’s mattered, but also helped sustain the notion that empire was redeemable, extending its life and enabling ever more abuses. The instances of scandalous excess in imperial rule that concerned such critics were not disruptions of an otherwise beneficent form of rule, but endemic to an inherently racist and violent form of rule without consent, aimed at coercive resource extraction.

Thirdly, there is little evidence that the alleged “pros” were in fact “pros.” British-built railroads in India, for instance, served British economic and political needs rather than the needs of Indians. The East India Company, which administered British India before 1858, guaranteed a 4 to 5 percent profit plus free land and other facilities to British investors in their construction. Indian taxpayers massively subsidized these corporate profits. Most of the capital raised for railroad construction was spent in Britain; workers came from Britain and were paid twice the home rate plus passage and other allowances. Rails, locomotives—everything came from abroad, despite the capacity to make locomotives in India. In turn, India became more dependent on British industry, settling into the role of raw material supplier for world markets. In the 1870s, it was also clear that the British-made railroads exacerbated rather than alleviated the effects of famine. They served British rather than Indian security, as did irrigation projects.

All alleged “public works” projects in India were designed to enable the imperial bureaucracy to preserve its power as cheaply as possible. In the 1840s and 1850s, they were supported only when they promised to either mitigate revenue loss caused by famine or strengthen the British military position. After the massive Indian rebellion against British rule in 1857, they were part of a new assertion of British authority over the subcontinent. John Stuart Mill’s official defense of the East India Company propagandized such “improvements,” setting a trend for annual government reports on “Moral and Material Progress” in India, which were assembled without consulting Indians. Such narratives produced a gap between the real and the recorded, and anti-colonial activists like Dadabhai Naoroji disproved their claims even then, showing that Indian wealth flowed into British coffers. And yet claims about British rule “benefiting the average Indian” continue to appear in schoolbooks in 2022. The British began advertising the “pros” of their presence in India precisely to redeem the destruction they were so obviously wreaking and enable its continuity. It does not make critical-thinking or ethical sense to invoke the false protest of “progress” that enabled British colonial violence to redeem that violence.

What about the claim that Britain brought order to an Indian society in crisis? This poisonous canard dates to the era of colonialism too, and comparison to similarly sized Europe in the same period offers a helpful antidote: a restless subcontinent of continual wars over successions and territories, infused with sectarian differences (and driving much of the conflict in South Asia). No one says an outside power ought to have stepped in to stave off this European anarchy; rather this dynamism is viewed as progress, history’s march toward the natural order of nation-states. Given the strength of emerging regional powers in India in the same period, language like “decline” and “crisis” is equally inappropriate there. The new powers challenging the Mughal Empire were no more inherently vulnerable or chaotic than, say, the successor states of the Holy Roman Empire. Textbooks that paint disunity among Indian powers as a historical failure inviting British intercession do not see Jacobite rebellion in England itself in that light. In fact, the only substantive difference between these tales of two subcontinents is simply that groups of armed traders were not poised at Europe’s coasts to exploit tectonic shifts there, because Europe offered little seduction in the way of riches.

Finally, the problem with weighing pros and cons is that it presumes there is a point at which the story is over, the accounts are closed, and we can actually tot up the balance, when in fact the story is never over, as the past continues to haunt the present in new and unpredicted ways.

Balance sheets of the British Empire attempt to show that its “pros”—trains or dams—outweighed its “cons”—occasional violent excesses, racism—despite the ambiguous impact of many alleged “pros” and the deeply flawed premise that we can judge an inherently illegitimate and immoral system by anything other than that illegitimacy and immorality. We forget that illegitimacy—unlike, say, apartheid’s—because we still believe in the historical vision that justified its violence and racism: that a civilizing mission may wreak destruction for an ultimately good end. This is the thinking that sustained Western interventions in the formerly colonized world during the Cold War and the war on terror. But here we are in 2022, facing climate crisis, massive global inequalities and displacements, and a toxic legacy of racism, and we see that the destruction has been as indefensibly harmful as anti-colonial thinkers said it was.

The kids are right. As even Disney movies like Frozen II and Encanto take on issues like reparations, displacement, and intergenerational trauma, it is time for our schools, too, to honor those who suffered under colonialism by ceasing to ask descendants of that era to suffer the harm of participating in the ethical travesty of justifying its violence. This is, indeed, an ethical vision that makes sense to children—and should speak to us, too.