Teaching History with Postcolonial Consciousness

The Possibility of Overcoming Eurocentrism/Colonialism

For the last several decades, a variety of forms of colonial discourse such as nationalism and Eurocentrism have been criticized by postcolonial theorists. In particular, they attacked the nationalist paradigm of Korean history for its

Eurocentric premise of modernity. However, is it ever possible to transcend Eurocentrism in history scholarship or history education?

In the field of history education, the criticism of Eurocentrism has mainly targeted middle and high school world history courses for their emphasis on European history or their adoption of the theories on European internal development into modernity and modernization (Kang, 2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2006, 2012). Many scholars suggested restructuring the world history courses with theories of global history, in particular adapting inter- regional/cross-cultural approaches or world system theories (Jeong, 2003; Kang, 2002, 2003a, 2006; Lee, 2006). This was an attempt to structure world history to explain the capitalist modernity as a contingent result of Afro-Eurasian interregional interactions, not a result of the logical realization of European cultural traits, and thereby to reduce the influence of a Eurocentric perspective. Historians have also sought in theories of global history alternative approaches to transcend Eurocentric concepts of history such as general history, linear development, and modernization (Cha, 2007; Cho, 2002; Lim, 2008).

However, theories of global history have also confronted criticism that it too is no more than Eurocentric. Tack-Hyun Kim (2012) argued that ‘Eurocentrism is inseparable with European modern capitalism/colonialism and the history of Eurocentrism is the history of European capitalism, which spread all around the world, and the European colonialist narrative, which was justified by civilizational mission.’ He criticized global history as also justifying the globalization of capitalism, and therefore it is Eurocentric. Tack-Hyun Kim (2012: 349) argued that ‘the deconstruction of modernity and the destruction of capital power are the only ways to overcome Eurocentrism and thus to be free from colonialism.’ Tack-Hyun Kim takes a radical position about the way to overcome colonialism. In his view, only anti-modernism and anti-capitalism can resolve colonialism.

Jerry Bentley (2010) also saw anti-modernism as the ultimate resolution for colonialism. Bentley, during an international conference in Seoul, 2010, pointed out the problem of ‘structural Eurocentrism,’ which is ‘the structures of thought and categories of analysis—all deriving from modern, capitalist, industrial and imperial Europe—that steer historians and other scholars to understand the world from a particular perspective.’ He referred to Chakrabarty’s (1992) criticism on Eurocentrism. Chakrabarty argued:

‘Economics’ and ‘history’ are the knowledge forms that correspond to the two major institutions that the rise of the bourgeois order has given to the world - the capitalist mode of production and the nation-state... So long as one operates within the discourse of ‘history’ produced at the institutional site of the university, it is not possible simply to walk out of the deep collusion between ‘history’ and the modernizing narrative(s) of citizenship, bourgeois public and private, and the nation-state. (Chakrabarty, 1992: 19)

Postcolonial theories in the vein of poststructuralism problematize not only the nationalist paradigm but also history scholarship as a whole as constituting a European colonizing process. Chakrabarty (1992: 18) asserted Indian history or Korean history ‘even in the most dedicated socialist or nationalist hands remains a mimicry (Homi Bhabha’s term, Bhabha, 2004) of a certain ‘modern’ subject of ‘European’ history.’ To end Eurocentism/colonialism, history scholarship has to be reconstructed. In other words, within the discipline of history, no one is able to suggest how to overcome Eurocentrism, a form of colonialism. Overcoming structural Eurocentrism requires scholars to approach the past with different concepts, categories, and methods from those of ‘history.’

However, Chakrabarty and Bentley found redeeming value in historical scholarship, suggesting that ‘professional historical scholarship is capable of improvement’ (Bentley, 2010: 169). Chakrabarty (2000) attempted to configure the ‘particularity’ of modernity in non-Western countries with ‘indigenous’ categories, demanding provincializing the Europeanness of concepts and theories in history and social science. However, the elaboration and enunciation of the particularity of each region or culture or indigenousness may reinforce ‘ethnocentrism,’ or ‘particularism,’ which has little relevance to the common task which requires a sharing of awareness and consciousness for the survival of humankind. In this respect, some scholars such as Jorn Rusen (2010) and Jerry Bentley (2010) seek to create ‘another universality’ or ‘cosmopolitanism’ beyond ethnocentrism or Eurocentrism. Nevertheless, is it ever possible to transcend structural Eurocentrism in history scholarship or history education?

It is important to critically approach modernity and capitalism to reveal and to solve the problems that the contemporary world is facing. However, ‘it is ahistorical to erase the physical and ideological consequences of the global impact of this European modernity’ (Dirlik, 2010: 214). It should be recognized that ‘the discourses of Euro/American modernity are now part of a global discourse of modernity, which ironically includes the legitimation of anti-colonialism and anti-modernism, which are discussed in postcolonial criticism and postmodernism’ (Dirlik, 2010: 214).

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