From Colonial Education to a Transnational Mindset

Kirsten Kamphuis

Niranjan Casinader, a Senior Lecturer in Education at Monash University, shows considerable ambition in this compact book. Transnationalism, Education and Empowerment: The Latent Legacies of Empire spans no more than 140 pages. In seven brief chapters Casinader aims to transform our understanding of transnationalism. More precisely, the author investigates what ‘being transnational’ might mean for the identities of people whose family histories are entangled with historical processes of empire and migration. 

 Throughout the book, he argues that current scholarly understandings of transnationalism are too constrained to the movements of people and goods. This argument is supported by an investigation into colonial education in Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka. While benefiting from the colonial education system, Casinader argues, members of certain Ceylonese cultural minorities – exemplified by the authors’ own family – developed a ‘transnational’ identity.

According to the author, ‘transnationalism is more of a pre-existing sensibility that is fundamentally disassociated from place, location and boundaries, one in which the notion of “transculturalism” is an essential aspect’ (p. 12). While this definition sounds quite elusive at first, it quickly becomes clear that in the eyes of the author transnationalism is not primarily linked to concrete physical movement, but to a mental process. Indeed, Casinader redefines transnationalism as ‘a state of mind and attitude towards life or disposition that is not aligned with the delineations of political spatial entities in the form of sovereign states’ (p. 130).

Transnationalism reconceptualised

The first part of the book’s  argument about transnationalism is thought-provoking. It seems likely that people with a family history of empire and migration experience resonances of transnationality on an individual level. The method which the author uses to illustrate his theoretical framework of the ‘transnational disposition’ is especially original. In the sixth chapter, Casinader uses his own family, which has roots in colonial Sri Lanka but has been spread out all over the globe in the aftermath of the dissolving of the British Raj, as a case study. Even though the sample is too small to be called an actual sociological survey of the family – six family members have been interviewed – this approach does give insight in the authors’ argument. The history of the family is truly fascinating, branching out from England and France to colonial Ceylon and then to Britain, Denmark and Australia, and this makes this chapter the most interesting one.

The second argument that the author wishes to make about transnationalism, namely that ‘transnationalism is not a phenomenon that can be limited to the contemporary era of the 21st century’ (p. 130) is less interesting. According to the author, there is a ‘current assumption’ (p. 130) that the phenomenon is limited to the current era, but in reality the idea of transnationalism as a historical process is already widespread. Scholars of colonial education have provided convincing examples of transnational phenomena inside and outside of the colonial classroom: see, for example, the contributions to Esther Möller and Johannes Wischmeyer’s edited volume Transnationale Bildungsräume. Wissentransfers im Schnittfeld von Kultur, Politik und Religion (Transnational educational areas: Knowledge transfers at the point of intersection between culture, politics and religion) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014). It seems unlikely that historians of colonial education would defend the view that transnationalism is a uniquely 21st-century phenomenon.

Education as empowerment?

The place of colonial education in Ceylon in this book remains somewhat unclear. Even though the title of the book suggests that it is at the core of its argument, it is only on page 51, with a 12-page chapter on education in pre-colonial Sri Lanka, that the topic really takes centre stage. It is clear that the authors’ family, who belonged to the Tamil and Burgher minorities of Ceylon, greatly benefitted a from the opportunities that the colonial education system offered them. This is the ‘empowerment’ of which the title speaks, and the book shows convincingly that under British colonialism, certain marginalized minorities in Ceylon successfully used colonial education to their own ends.

On the other hand, the picture of British colonial education which is presented here is somewhat schematic and therefore ultimately not completely convincing. One may wonder if the author is not somewhat too optimistic if he states, for example, that ‘it was under the more enlightened colonial rule of the British that education finally became the pathway to self-improvement, available to people of all ethnic origins within the country….’ (p. 65). Even though the experience of his own family might suggest this, historical research shows that education in the British Raj was in fact highly differentiated according to factors such as class and, indeed, ethnicity. Some useful examples of this can be found in the volume Education in Colonial India: Historical Insights (New Delhi: Manohar, 2014) edited by Deepak Kumar et al. It seems unlikely that factors of race, class and religion, which prevailed elsewhere in the British Raj, were completely absent in Ceylon.

Another issue, which is altogether rather common in the field of colonial history, is the problematic place that girl’s education occupies in the narrative. Girls’ education is rarely mentioned, and even when it is, it is primarily used as a marker of modernity. In a classical narrative, Casinader portrays colonial education as being ‘for all, not just the elite, and for both genders…. Progress in this area was slower, stifled to a degree because of the reluctance of Sinhalese and Tamil societies to encourage girls to be educated, a reflection of the Buddhist and Hindu practices of the pre-European area’ (p. 78). Even though parents’ refusal to send girls to colonial schools was a factor for girls’ lower school participation in many colonial areas, this cannot simply be reduced to ‘pre-colonial’ practices. When it is later repeated that ‘[i]ssues such as educational access, regardless of gender … were not a part of the pre-European imaginary of Ceylonese society’ (p. 94), the author seems to use this argument mainly to portray Ceylonese society as insufficiently progressive. This is a somewhat simplistic and ahistorical approach to women’s education. For more fruitful approaches to gender and education in the British Raj, one may again turn to the aforementioned volume Education in Colonial India, which features four essays on women’s education.

All in all, it is unclear for which audience this book would be most useful. It is not very deeply grounded in historical debates, and the research on the authors’ family is not rigorous enough to be a sociological study. On the other hand, the method of zooming in on one family will definitely be interesting to historians of empire, for whom the micro-historical approach is still relatively uncommon. The book itself seems to be transgressing borders between disciplines. In a sense, this is much like the members of the Casinader family transgressed, and continue to transgress, borders between nations, both psychically and mentally.