The History of Education as Colonial Apologist: A Marxist Critique

Curry Malott I Indigenous Rights I History I May 20th, 2016

The three interrelated premises of historical development (i.e. the satisfaction of needs, the creation of new needs, and with them, the growth of the size and complexity of society), for Marx and Engels, are universal aspects of history that always exist despite mode of production, mode of cooperation, or degree and form of productive development.

Within capitalism the creation of new needs is driven by the capitalists' quest for expanding capital. The global expansion of capital was already presupposed by its emergence. The colonization of what would become the U.S., for example, represents one of capital's chief moments of primitive accumulation. This paper examines the way history of education texts have dealt with this fundamental aspect of the global expansion of capitalism. I argue that the genocide of America's Indigenous peoples and the theft of their lands have been downplayed in the history of education, even within Marxist approaches. This paper therefore argues that this shortcoming represents an unfortunate distortion of Marx who wrote extensively on how the European capitalist conquerors ruthlessly waged war on Native North America. Marx's last works, his ethnographic notebooks, focused on Native American societies and what they have to offer in terms of social existence after capitalism. The correction of so-called Marxist and traditional history of education texts is fundamental for building a socialist movement in the twenty first century based on the self-determination of oppressed nations and national minorities (i.e. true to the international solidarity of the Marxist-Leninist tradition). However, in responding to history of education texts that align themselves with the work of Marx I do not address their most common charges (i.e. functionalist economic reductionism), but rather, I focus on what I believe is their capitulation to the capitalist conquest of the Americas. As a result, this work, in my estimation, departs from some of Marx's more relevant and important insights for transforming capitalist relations into socialist ones in the contemporary era.

Marx's dialectical approach to constructing historical narratives always takes as its place of departure a critical engagement with existing narratives refracted through the light of empirical evidence and systematic reasoning. The error made by most history of education texts is that the connections between the settler-state, colonialism, and the uniquely capitalistic quest to perpetually expand capital are either loose and undeveloped or they are treated as separate, mostly unrelated spheres or aspects of human society. What follows is a critique of history of education texts' engagement with the colonial era. The following critique of history of education textbooks demonstrates the fields' disconnection with Indigenous studies. I present the analysis as a chronological history of the history of education and point to how its shortcomings can be overcome through an engagement with Indigenous studies (see, for example, Coulthard, 2014; Mohawk, 1999; Venables, 2004).

The Colonial Era

The discovery of America was another development of the desire for travel and discovery awakened by the Crusades. (Cubberley, 1919, p. 11)

This quote from Elwood Cubberley's 1919 history of education book represents a combination of what the late educational historian Michael Katz (1987) describes as an approach that seeks "superficial causes" (p. 140). Katz argues that this approach "signals a retreat from any attempt to find a principle or core within a social system," consequently, "the levers of change remain obscure" (p. 140). Clearly, Cubberley's explanation for European expansion and colonial pursuits as the result of a thirst for adventure can be described as "superficial." Cubberley's larger discussion of the history of education is unapologetically Euro-centric. We can observe this legacy of pro-capitalist Euro-centric apology reproduced in history of education textbooks in the decades following Cubberley. Vassar's (1965) history of American education text offers an example:

The missionary organizations were far more successful in their endeavors among the Negroes than among the Indians…in this great crusade…developing honest hard working Christian slaves…A large population [of Native Americans were] not slaves [adding to the difficulty of educating Indians]. (pp. 11-12)

While Cubberley's (1919) Euro-centrism stems from his glaring omission of even the mention of a Native American presence, Vassar's (1965) narrative is equally Euro-centric implying that the assimilation of Native Americans and Africans into bourgeois society represents a "great crusade." That is, Vassar presents colonialism, a process that led to centuries of physical, biological, and cultural genocide, as a positive force. Unfortunately, the racism and white supremacy of traditional bourgeois historians was either not discussed by the Marxist historians, or they themselves reproduced it. Consider:

The Western frontier was the nineteenth-century land of opportunity. In open competition with nature, venturesome white adventurers found their own levels, unfettered by birth or creed. The frontier was a way out-out of poverty, out of dismal factories, out of crowded Eastern cities. The frontier was the Great Escape. (Bowles and Gintis, 1976, p. 3)

I present Cubberley (1919) and Vassar (1965) next to Bowles and Gintis (1976) to demonstrate both the difference and continuity between traditional education historians and so-called Marxist education historians on the issue of colonialism/Westward expansion. As previously suggested, Bowles and Gintis' somewhat apologetic statement on the colonization of the Americas is not a position they borrowed from Marx for Marx was well aware of the barbaric destructiveness the expansion of capital had on the non-capitalist and non-Western societies it expanded into.

What is most obvious here is Bowles and Gintis' empathy for the children and grand-children of the expropriated peasant-proprietors of Europe who were "chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers" (Marx, 1867/1967, p. 734). The acknowledgement of the destructive and oppressive nature of capitalism here represents a clear break from the corporate apologist narratives that have dominated before and since Bowles and Gintis (1976). However, at the same time, there is a haunting silence within Bowles and Gintis' narrative seemingly more interested in the fate of immigrant laborers than the ancient tribes and confederacies that continue to struggle for national sovereignty within a colonial present that can too easily seem perpetual or permanent. This exclusionary tendency within much of the Marxist tradition, despite the contrary testimony of Marx's own work, has contributed to an unfortunate misunderstanding of the contributions of Marx.

Even progressive education historians in the 1980s and beyond continued to reproduce colonialist narratives. Button and Provenzo (1983/1989), for example, after explaining the colonization of the Americas as the result of a growing middle-class gaining wealth from a period of "peace, prosperity and trade" (p. 6), portray Native Americans as the helpless, primitive victims of progress:

The Native Americans…belonged to hundreds of tribes with almost as many different languages. In general, they had little in common with one another and did not unite to resist the settlement of their lands by the early colonists. The existence of numerous rivers and harbors, of a moderate climate, and natives unorganized for resistance, made North America splendid for colonization, if not for immediate exploitation. (p. 6)

Button and Provenzo (1983/1989) seem to offer this short passage as their explanation for the disappearance of Native Americans on the Eastern seaboard-an assumption that is patently false. Even more recent history of education texts written from progressive, constructivist perspectives too often reproduce the old colonial narratives. For example, it is astonishing that a book published in 2013 called Education and Social Change (Rury, 2013) would continue to depict American Indians or Native Americans as primitive victims helpless against the powerful onslaught of Europe's superiority.

Fortunately, there exists other history of education texts offering some diversity of narrative. For example, and to their credit, Wayne Urban and Jennings Wagoner (2009), in the fourth edition of their text, American Education: A History, reassess the old narrative reproduced by Boers (2007), arguing, instead, that the colonies were not established with the intention of building a new society, but rather, were a business venture, that is, an investment opportunity. To understand the first New Englanders' relationship with pre-existing indigenous confederacies, it is important to remember that the colonists faced the continent and its communities as religiously-mediated investors who came from a pre-existing English capitalist society that had long been primitively accumulated and normalized and naturalized traditions of private property and a market in human labor.

In Jamestown, VA, the continents' first permanent English settlement established in 1607, relied on a friendly relationship with the local Powhatan Confederacy for their own survival and for the success of their investment. However, the capitalist purpose of the colony, and thus its very existence, presented a major barrier to peace. At the same time, renowned American Indian historian, Robert Venables (1994), makes a compelling case that, before dissolving, the relationship between the colony and the Powhatan Confederacy was mutually beneficial.

…The London Company's investment in the highly profitable tobacco plantation business relied on peaceful relations with the local Powhatan Confederacy. Tobacco farmers supplied Powhatans with trade goods in exchange for food, which allowed colonists to invest their labor in the cash crop not worrying much about food. Powhatan's access to trade goods allowed them to grow stronger and defeat their rivals to the west thereby gaining access to trade with the copper-producing Indians of the Great Lakes (Venables, 2004, pp. 81)

Clearly, Venables does not see the Powhatans' as helpless victims, but as savvy negotiators committed to their own national interests. However, because of the labor-intensive nature of tobacco production and because of its profitability as a use-value, by 1619 a Dutch ship brought the first shipment of African slave-laborers to Virginia to keep pace with the demand for labor. Because of these reasons, it also made more sense to focus labor on tobacco production and continue to rely on the Powhatans for food. Consequently, fifteen years after their arrival, the colonists continued to rely on the Native communities for food, which might not have been a problem, but their numbers were forever growing, therefore placing increasing pressure on the Powhatan's food supply.

The colonists also came to the Americas with an old racist ideology stemming from an invented, Christian-related, European identity (Mohawk, 1999), which resulted in a long legacy of colonists viewing and treating Native Americans as inferior. Consequently, it was not uncommon for colonists to disregard Powhatan national authority and settle land without compensation or consultation, leading to tension and conflict with Native communities. Perhaps one of the last straws was the colonialists' plans to establish an Indian college, which American Indians saw for themselves no advantages. It was understood that adopting the settlers capitalistic ways would give the elites among the new settlers a major advantage by stripping the Powhatans of their own economy and means to satisfy and expand their needs. If the foreign capitalist becomes the ruler of the land, then the American Indians would forever be subordinate in the relationship. Eventually, having their land-base, food supply, culture, and very existence threatened, the Powhatans decided to terminate the colony. Commenting on this decision Venables (2004) explains:

In 1622 Powhatan warriors, intimately familiar with colonists routines from being their primary food vendor, simultaneously struck 31 locations across a 70 mile area killing nearly 350 of a population of 1200. (Pp. 81-82)

In the aftermath, hundreds of settlers sailed back to England. Cut off from their food supply as many as five hundred more colonists died of starvation that winter. As a result, James I took over the London Company's investment. That is, having been operated as a private venture for the first 17 years, Virginia, "became a royal colony in 1624 and control transferred to the Crown appointed governor" (Urban & Wagoner, Pp. 18). While this was an important development, following Venables and other historians, the ten years of bloody war that followed and the ways Indian policy were forever transformed (from co-existence to extermination), have had far more serious implications for the fate of the indigenous communities in North America. According to Venables (2004), "the 1622 attack did more than merely define future Indian policy in Virginia as one of conquest…It encouraged an already existent English colonial attitude of racial superiority" (p. 84). For example, after learning of the Powhatan war, the Pilgrims in Massachusetts erected a fort fearing the Narragansetts. However, the struggle for the Eastern seaboard was ultimately determined in 1633/1634 as smallpox wiped out Indians in a massive epidemic. Puritans, as might be expected, viewed this unintentional genocide as an act of God. Governor Winthrop:

If God were not pleased with our inheriting these parts, why did he drive out the natives before us? And why does he still make room for us by diminishing them as we increase? (Quoted in Venables, 2004,Pp. 89)

Following conquest, which was not the result of European superiority, but was made possible by an accident, settler-state policy toward indigenous communities has consistently eroded indigenous independence/sovereignty. A new Marxist history of education must therefore not only rethink the past, but it must embrace the national sovereignty of Americas' first nations as part of the movement for a socialist alternative to capitalism.


Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. New York: Basic Books.

Boers, D. (2007). History of American Education Primer. New York: Peter Lang.

Button, H.W. & Provenzo, E. (1983/1989). History of Education & Culture in America: Second Edition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Coulthard, G.S. (2014). Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Minnesota University Press.

Cubberley, E. (1919). Public Education in the United States: A Study and Interpretation of American Educational History. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Marx, K. (1867/1967). Capital. Volume 1. New York: International Publishers.

Mohawk, J. (1999). Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World. Sante Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishing.

Rury, J. (2013). Education and Social Change: Contours in the History of American Schooling. New York: Routledge.

Urban W. & Wagoner, J. (2009). American Education: A History (Fourth Edition). New York: Routledge.

Vassar, R. (1965). Social History of American Education: Volume I: Colonial Times to 1860. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company.

Venables, R. (2004). American Indian History: Five Centuries of Conflict & Coexistence: Volume I: Conquest of a Continent 1492-1783. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light.