Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Postcolonial Perspectives and the “Good Teacher”

  • Stephen ChatelierEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_13-1

Introduction: Good Teachers and International Schools

Pre-service teachers are entering a profession with a strong emphasis on educational quality, measured and compared in a system governed by market logics which function to affect the policies and emphases that govern the work of teachers. This has been particularly evident in the increasing focus on international competition through international standardized testing and measurement regimes and the comparison of outcomes. It is now the case that these kinds of metrics have become a dominant way of determining what a good education looks like and, subsequently, what makes one a good teacher. As the logics of the market economy have extended to, and intensified within, the society at large, education has not only become commercialized in regard to its production and delivery of knowledge but has undertaken to utilize market-based principles to make judgments on what can be counted as quality education and quality teaching. Indeed, education systems across the world are increasingly interested in quality teaching as it represents the key ingredient for schools, school systems, and nation-states to better position themselves within the global education market. Thus, quality teaching becomes linked to other policy imperatives such as teacher standards, teacher competences, and debates around performance pay. This market-based system is particularly problematic for the world’s poorest countries that simply cannot compete with the wealthiest education systems across the globe.

While the discourse around teacher quality, governed as it is by what can be referred to as a neoliberal rationality, can sometimes appear to see results on PISA and other standardized testing mechanisms as unquestionable evidence of what counts as quality, philosophers of education continue to consider the question of what constitutes “quality” according to a different set of criteria. While the economization of education has emphasized the primacy of outputs, moral philosophy has long grappled with the relationship between, and ordering of, educational inputs and outputs. Thus, to ask what it means to be a good teacher philosophically is to ask a very different question to that most commonly asked today. One key focus of philosophers of education over the years has been the moral dimension of teaching practice. While these questions are still being asked, they are seldom evidenced within public discourse and policy formulations regarding the purpose and quality of contemporary education.

There are a range of reasons for this shift from philosophical considerations of the good teacher into more instrumental ones. As this introduction has suggested, primary among this is the marketization of society, of ideas, and, one might plausibly argue, of the global imaginary. However, while this particular shift has seen philosophy gradually come to appear, and thus be seen, as less relevant to societies, other critiques of philosophy and its relationship to ethical and moral questions had already arisen in the latter decades of the twentieth century. One critique which is related to the focus of this particular contribution is that philosophical notions of the good have tended to universalize and, thus, demonstrate a lack of awareness of both cultural difference and the variations in individual’s and group’s lived experiences.

This entry will consider aspects of postcolonial theories related to imperialism, relativism, and morality and how they may be applied to the question of the good teacher. It will be argued that postcolonial theorizing of ethical matters can be understood as a negotiation between the universal and the particular. Assisting pre-service teachers to develop a disposition toward, and practice of, cultural negotiation is a key area that teacher education programs need to place greater focus on. In transnational contexts of education, it is the careful negotiation of the universal and particular that will mark the “good teacher.”

Education and the good in a globalised world

It would be inaccurate to suggest that international and intercultural exchanges are new phenomena. Nevertheless, it is the case that globalizing processes have rapidly expanded and intensified over the past 30 years. The world in which we now live is one facing both challenges and opportunities of a global nature. For example, climate change, large-scale involuntary migration, cybersecurity, diasporic workers, and international collaborations all highlight ways in which the world is interconnected and interdependent. Both the challenges and opportunities of globalization require decisions to be made that inevitably involve judgments based on cultural norms, beliefs, and ideologies. This is also the case when it comes to a whole range of judgements made by educators working in environments marked by cultural diversity, such as international schools. While disagreements about how best to respond to an issue is not something new, transnational spaces of education present a more complicated situation in which to take moral action.

At a more basic level, cultural differences in opinion relating to matters of moral concern, both inside and outside the field of education, challenge the very space of moral philosophical thinking and moral action. Philosophers of education may now ask if it is still feasible to continue to use notions such as “the good.” Is it a universal concept that no longer makes sense in a world marked by difference? Are attempts to identify the “good teacher” destined to impose particular cultural views of “the good” on everyone?

Postcolonial theories present a challenge to resist the violence of presumed universals that are imposed without regard for particular contexts, but they also present a challenge to not reject the category of the universal. The challenge to both resist and embrace the category of the universal is based on postcolonial theorists’ concern for the lived experience of the subaltern.

The experiences of the colonized give rise to consideration of the problems of both moral universalism and moral relativism. From here, it is suggested that postcolonial theories help to demonstrate an approach to questions of “the good” that can be understood as a negotiation of, or struggle emerging from, the universal and the particular. More specifically, in the case of transnational spaces of education and the growth of international schools, the good teacher might be identified as the one who participates in this negotiation. The good (teacher) then is not a fixed ideal to which one aspires. It is, rather, a contingent and provisional construct that has been arrived at through a genuine negotiation of difference. Indeed, negotiation becomes a practice that might be thought of as an educational virtue. While there may continue to be a place for instruction, it is negotiation that best reflects the attempt to educate rather than indoctrinate. Moreover, a notion of the good that is attentive to the lessons of postcoloniality prioritizes the experience of the colonized or the subaltern. For international school teachers, “being” good will also require taking seriously the implications of the imbalance of power and the possibilities for imperialism.

Colonialism and the problems of universalism and relativism The history of colonialism provides empirical grounds for the critique of moral universalism. This is particularly stark when one considers that, as part of the program of cultural imperialism that took place with colonization, humanism functioned as the moral impetus of colonialism’s civilizing mission. In a variety of ways, not least the aims of colonial education, the civilizing mission sought to correct and improve the “native” that they might modernize and develop a moral and rational relation to the world. Thus, whatever moral vision of the good society that humanism might have reflected and enacted in a local culture was radically undermined by its inextricable ties to colonial endeavors. This colonial humanism was revealed as immoral, but also its principles and values were shown to be culturally bound rather than universal in scope.

Subsequent postcolonial theorizing – alongside other philosophical objections – has offered serious criticism of the idea of moral absolutes. Important Western philosophers who have tried to articulate a universal ethics have been criticized for extrapolating their Western experience into a general experience or principle to be applied to all. Immanuel Kant’s cosmopolitanism, for example, which acted as a resource for the moral development of children within education, has been criticized for being marred by a Eurocentric hierarchizing of humanity. European Enlightenment thinking, values, and norms of this kind were considered by colonialists as universal in the sense of them being ultimate, rather than commonly shared. However, there was an assumption that through education, and based on the ability – indeed, the perceived humanness – of the ethno-cultural group being educated, universal values and norms could be developed outside of Europe. Yet, the movement of these values and norms outside of Europe through the processes of colonialism revealed the arrogance, violence, and cultural boundedness of this notion of universal absolutes.

While it might therefore be assumed that the failure of moral universalism results in the triumph of moral relativism, it is not so simple. That words such as violence and injustice can be used in reference to colonialism suggests otherwise. Colonialism is not a philosophical thought experiment, but a historical reality people have suffered. This experience has given rise to criticism of philosophies defending the relativist position. For example, in an analysis of Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, Mohanty (1995) delivers a critique of his relativism for providing a way around ethnocentrism at the cost of producing an abstract version of tolerance that has no possibility for one culture to engage with the other. A key problem with this kind of relativism is that it fails to acknowledge that the world is, as colonialism shows, structured according to asymmetrical power relations (Radhakrishnan 2003). With this kind of relativism, the possibility for moral discourse and ethico-political action is evacuated at the expense of those already marginalized. Moreover, it makes absent the pedagogical possibilities that arise from a relational philosophy and politics.

Postcolonial theories: the universal and the particular Thus, the lived experience of colonialism, of imperialism, and of marginalization presents a challenge to both universalism and relativism. Dipesh Chakrabarty famously wrote of the strategy of provincializing Europe as a postcolonial resistance to both Eurocentrism (universalism) and nativism (relativism). The experience of suffering demands that something rather than nothing be done. Yet the response to oppression needs to avoid becoming a new kind of fixed universalism. So while the generalizing of suffering under the name subaltern, for example, may have a role to play in resisting oppression, such a strategy maintains the universal and, therefore, risks further silencing. So it is that particular circumstances are needed to counter the imperialistic tendency of the universal.

The Martinican psychiatrist, revolutionary, and philosopher, Frantz Fanon, provides an example of negotiating the violence of the universal from within the context of the particular, without resorting to a universalization of the particular. He was scathing of the violence perpetrated by European colonialism. Epistemological, territorial/political, and cultural violence was the result, Fanon believed, of the presumed universalism of European humanism – and its will to impose itself on “every corner of the globe” (2001). He advocated for, and participated in, anticolonial struggle. But he was unambiguous in his warning that a resort to nativism represents a capitulation to colonialism. Nationalism would commit the same crimes as Eurocentrism. Moreover, despite his withering critique of Europe, Fanon did not outright reject all it had to offer. In regard to humanism, Fanon called for a rejection of its European universalism while struggling to find a new humanism out of the ruin of the anticolonial struggle. This move is a negotiation between the call of the universal (humanism) and the demands of the particular (cultural difference).

While abstract philosophies may wish to challenge the notion of the universal on logical grounds, it is important to understand that for postcolonial theories, it is the particular subaltern experiences that act as the imperative for an ethical response to the violences of imperialism. It is this ethico-political imperative that sees Edward Said maintain a commitment to a rearticulated humanism throughout his work and Gayatri Spivak resist following literary poststructuralism into the realm of the “purely textual.” Both Said and Spivak maintain a commitment to the kind of ethico-politics that, while not fixed, nevertheless relies on the category of the universal.

This aspect of some postcolonial theories is articulated well by Dipesh Chakrabarty when he writes, “we need universals to produce critical readings of social injustices. Yet the universal…[produces] forms of thought that ultimately evacuate the place of the local” (2000, pp. 254–255). If this is right, the responsibility is to work the tensions of the universal and the particular so that they can produce something of critical and ethico-political importance. Radhakrishnan writes that “the ‘nameless’ dignity of all humanity…whose value is enshrined in all human beings as the Other, has to be spoken for and produced as a contingent principle in different historical conjunctures by determinate, named human groups” (2003, p. 50). Without the universal, relativism makes a mockery of justice. Without particularity and contingency, imperialism makes a mockery of justice. Thus, Radhakrishnan continues, “as we consider the ethico-political authority of any human ‘value’ that we consider universal…we cannot afford to forget that the burden of producing that value, as the telos of their cause, was borne in history by a particular group of people and it was through their experiences of pain and struggle that the cause attained its universality” (pp. 50–51). There is a postcolonial resonance in such a call. It is a call that takes seriously history and theory. Moreover, it prioritizes those who are on the wrong end of injustice.

The emphasis in postcolonial theory of acknowledging that the world is structured asymmetrically establishes both limits, and a need, for the notion of the good. That is, even while the notion of “the good” will inevitably suffer from forms of ethnocentrism, imperialism etc., to the extent that it is negotiated in different times and places, it is a concept that simultaneously strives to resist these inevitabilities. This is what Spivak means when she writes of the need to “critique a structure that one cannot not (wish to) inhabit” (Spivak 1990, p. 795). In other words, while “the good” might be part of – or form – an imperialistic structure, rather than either complete abandonment or acceptance of “the good,” the alternative is a critical negotiation of it.

Negotiating the good So, in taking the postcolonial challenge and experience seriously, the universal notion of “the good” is something that should, it might be argued, remain. However, if so, this idea of “the good” must always be a site of negotiation. Where universalism seeks to impose, and relativism to isolate, a postcolonial ethics is founded on a critical relationality. What this means is that the very concept of “the good” is something which is to be struggled over. It is a concept that, rather than obtaining a fixed meaning that can be discovered through careful philosophical analysis, needs to be articulated to the situations in which it finds itself. As such, any concept of the good is always provisional and contingent. Yet, for it to avoid being conceived in a whole variety of possibly contradictory ways – of becoming prey to relativism – a basic ethical imperative remains that links “the good” to justice and to both human and planetary flourishing.

For international school teachers, the friction caused when cultural differences come into contact tends to be obvious. International schools for the most part teach a curriculum that is either nationally based, such as British and American curricular, or have a “Western” provenance – such as the International Baccalaureate frameworks. Moreover, the pedagogical emphases of international schools also favor the latest approaches coming out of the most dominant education systems from Western and Northern Europe, as well as North America. Yet, these schools are often located in countries where the educational system is quite different. Moreover, the vast majority of the support staff, and some of the teaching staff, have grown up with, and been educated in, the local education system that has, inevitably, shaped a rather different set of cultural norms and values to that of the international school. This is the context in which all members of the school, but especially the foreign-hire teachers, are challenged as to what being a good teacher looks like. How does a teacher from the United States respond to the cultural differences with which they are confronted when teaching in China, or Uganda, or Saudi Arabia? The “good teacher,” it could be argued, is the one who carefully negotiates this difference in a way that does not blindly accept the new cultural norms but also does not dismissively resist them.

Indeed, to negotiate “the good” is to prioritize practice. In a sense, there is a circularity here. The emergence of the good is a result of good practice. But this circularity is not so different from what could be a more orthodox defense of morality: we ought to be good because it is good to be good. The more important point to make about practice is that the question becomes less about a person being good in a naturalized sense of the word and more about the practices of the community negotiating the good together. In educational contexts marked by difference – cultural, ethnic, etc. (of course, this is all educational contexts, but there is something distinct about international schools) – rather than seeing the good in narrow moral terms, linked to predetermined principles and codes of conduct, it is in the openness to each other’s differences, the learning from one another, and the commitment to living and working together despite these differences that will be the marker of what is good.

Thus, if teacher education programs aim, in some way, to prepare “good quality teachers,” there may be a need for them to assist pre-service teachers to develop dispositions for cultural negotiation. While this may involve doing teaching practicums in international contexts, it may be more important for core courses in philosophical, historical, and social foundations of education to not only explore non-Western ideas but for this content to be accompanied by a pedagogy that encourages democratic criticism of all cultural perspectives on education. Indeed, one perspective might be that seeing “the good” in this way also creates the opportunity for understanding in a very different way what quality education and teaching might look like in a globalized world.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Utahloy International School ZengchengGuangzhouChina
  2. 2.University of Melbourne MelbourneAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Liz Jackson
    • 1
  • Janet Orchard
  • Cong Lin
  1. 1.University of Hong KongHong KongChina