Communitas and the Negotiated Production of the Educated Citizen

Throughout this chapter, I have given several examples of the ways in which schools produced the nation but not reverence for it. Schools were supposed to produce a sense of reverence, worship, awe, and love for the nation, and yet students refused to comply with the rituals. At the same time, teach- ers—the state actors assigned to enforce compliance with these rituals and ritualized structures—were often complicit with students in their refusal to comply. In this process, disorder created openings through which to rethink the nation in schools.

If National Service/schooling was supposed to be a liminal space in which young people were transformed into ideal Eritrean educated persons/ citizens/soldiers, this process failed when it was no longer clear that National Service was something that was passed through and, instead, became an endless stage of subservience to the government. At the time of my fieldwork, limitless liminality had captured the lives of teachers and would soon subsume the lives of their students, who would not pass through National Service but rather get stuck in it. In such a situation, it is hardly surprising that the microrituals of schooling also fell apart, making the very process of becoming national a mockery of itself. As schools were coopted into the machinery of conscription, they also became spaces of limitless liminality, something shown most clearly through the difficulty they had actually starting each year. Liminality played out in more subtle ways in the everyday life of schools as well and was manifest in student lateness, truancy, and chronic misbehavior. A sense of communitas between students and teachers (sometimes cultivated, as in the case of Yesob, and sometimes imposed on teachers by students, as in the cases of Aron and Simone) partially replaced the hierarchical authority that should have enabled teachers to maintain discipline and order. This sense of communitas between teachers and students was encapsulated through student comments that teachers were “playing with” them. In turn, students “played” with their teachers, a behavior that altered the classroom climate from disciplinary and ordered to disordered. Disorder and the carnivalesque environment it produced enabled students to take what was sacred—lessons, learning, teacher authority—and profane it by mocking it. In the classroom, power was inverted, but when power was inverted in these contexts, other sacred objects, such as the president of the country himself, were also subject to mockery, giving rise to an open political critique. Another inversion was present in teachers’ refusal to teach civics and their jokes about civics being a “nice subject.” Just as a political commentary that made the president less than sacred emerged from students’ comments about running for president in their English class, a commentary on the values of The Struggle and the party version of Eritrean nationalism emerged from teachers’ comments on the teaching of civics.

The condition of limitless liminality was itself a by-product of National Service and the government’s nation-making project. But instead of producing national subjects willing to sacrifice and suffer obediently for the state, the effects of this nation-making program were inverted. Just as Eritreans tried to escape the coercive reach of gifa, when schools became a mechanism to conscript, teachers and students began evading schooling. This does not mean that schools failed to produce national subjects, but rather that they produced national subjects differently than the official nation-making project required. Just as imaginaries of the punishing state erased nationalist discourses of honorable sacrifice and service, thereby undermining the government’s nation-building project, resistance to school-based rituals and routines recast the official version of the nation as something other than what was intended.

This negotiation, subversion, and mocking of rituals transformed being an educated, national subject into something fundamentally different. At the same time, mocking sacred national ideals ultimately left the state project intact, if illegitimate. Lacking legitimacy, the project became coercive, revealing, once again, the vicious cycle of coercion, evasion, and impotence.

It is particularly significant that this vicious cycle of coercion and evasion played out in schools, which are the state institution best situated to produce national subjects and socialize citizens. The increasingly carnivalesque nature of the classroom and school reflected not an outright rejection of the ideal of becoming an educated citizen but a confused renegotiation of the meaning of doing so. Through this renegotiation, the meaning of being national turned from a statement—Eritreans are like this—into a question: What are we like? The assumption that students should serve and sacrifice for their country embedded in official narratives of being Eritrean were turned into a sometimes-comical conversation about the appropriateness of service, the validity of the stories of The Struggle, and a critique of the president’s job. Meanwhile, teachers did have a vision for what educated people should be like; even while teachers themselves were undermining authority in schools, they were also seeking to reinforce this vision through a series of coercive and even violent processes that are the subject of the next chapter.

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