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The Disturbed Surface of the Public Mind

And yet, as we have seen, this fear of overeducation coexisted with a matching fear of undereducation. The 1919 report of the Egyptian Elementary Educational Commission concluded with a number of inspiring quotations among which was a line from a 10 August 1918 article in the Times of London: “If education is allowed to wait, children do not wait for it: they grow up uneducated; and if we have learned one thing from the war, it is that the uneducated are a danger to the State.” [48] It was this latter threat that was eventually to triumph, and to permanently foreclose the possibility of scaling back educational institutions. The question instead became, not whether to educate the masses, but how best to do so? The term half-educated, so often used to refer to those whose education resulted in political inconvenience, requires an image of what a complete and sufficient education should accomplish. The tension between the perceived danger and promise of schooling reveals deeper tensions both between the imperatives of economic development and those of social control, and between the intellectual categories in which Europeans, and later Egyptians, thought about the relationship between their societies. A traditional, superstitious society could be transformed into a modern, rational one, but such a transformation would take untold amounts of time. Expressing the long-term nature of such changes, Cromer resorted to the gradualist idiom of Spencer and Darwin when he wrote of the introduction of democratic processes into Egypt. By the careful cultivation of preexisting parliamentary principles, he wrote, “we may succeed in creating a vitalized and self-existent organism, instinct with evolutionary force.” [49] And such change, as Anna Tsing points out with respect to the global narrative of development, “appears as a category which, by default, brings us toward what we know.” [50]

The problem was that neither the British nor the Egyptians possessed a good model for what the transitional stages between tradition and modernity would look like. When they saw what was happening in fact, they found the results grotesque, upsetting, confounding of normal categories of thought, and counter to all predictions: it appeared that the little-educated refused to turn to manual labor even to escape poverty; while the much-educated were irrational fanatics. One writer expressed this confusion with respect to India (although it might just as well have been written of Egypt):

The English in India…sow secular education broadcast among the most religious races in the world; and they invite all kinds of free criticism, by classes totally unaccustomed to such privileges, upon the acts of a bureaucratic government. The confusion of ideas that is sometimes generated by this confounding of heterogeneous elements, by the inexperience of the people and the candour of their rulers, is hard to describe; but very curious instances can be observed every day in the native newspapers, which reflect the disturbed surface of the public mind, without representing the deeper currents of native opinion and prepossessions. The press often appeals in the same breath to the primitive prejudices of Indian religion, and to the latest notions of European civilization.[51]

This profound anxiety and sense of danger stems from the confusion of categories that occurs whenever cultural boundaries are shattered and unlikely elements come to coexist.[52] Transitional states that fall between conceptual categories occasion a sense of dread, just as “people living in the interstices of the power structure [are] felt to be a threat to those with better defined status.” [53] This is the real shortcoming of theoretical systems that contrast the initial and final states of societies moving from one to another ideal type: they cannot deal fruitfully with the transition itself, which is never entirely thorough, predictable, or bounded in time.

The passage quoted above, on the English in India, is from an 1884 article in the Edinburgh Review, by Sir Alfred Lyall, an Indian administrator who was friend and intellectual mentor to Egypt's Lord Cromer.[54] Both worked under the influence of their colleague Sir Henry Maine's trendsetting 1861 book Ancient Law, one of the first works to capitalize on Comte's comparative method as a means of tracing evolutionary sequences in society. For Maine, ancient societies as exemplified by contemporary India were collective, patriarchal despotisms in which the family was the basic unit of organization. Evolutionary change in Europe had long ago altered the very foundation of that society, so that “starting, as from one terminus of history, from a condition of society in which all the relations of Persons are summed up in the relations of Family, we seem to have steadily moved towards a phase of social order in which all these relations arise from the free agreement of Individuals.” [55] For his part, Lyall believed that the British arrival in India would free that country from its “arrested development” and set it on a similar evolutionary course. This conservative position assumed that social change would be a gradual process of organic development, with the indigenous religious system an important part of the engine driving that evolution. (Lyall's predecessor, Sir William Jones, had composed devotional poetry to the Hindu gods promising that the British would undermine a “priest-ridden Hinduism,” [56] and Lyall himself believed that Hinduism might move up the evolutionary scale of religion from “naturalism” to “supernaturalism,” in which religious concern turned inward and otherworldly. He feared, however, that higher education for Indians would lead to atheism among the Western-educated elite.[57]) In Egypt, Cromer cautioned his own Ministry of the Interior in 1895 that there was no ministry in which “the zeal of the earnest reformer is more to be deprecated. The habits and customs of an oriental people must not be trifled with lightly.” [58] Religion and culture had to remain unmolested not only to avoid popular reaction, but to allow beliefs and institutions to take their own evolutionary course.

It is hard to overstate how different this view was from that of the other European philosophical camp, that of the Utilitarian radicals led by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. For the Utilitarians, who deprecated both “customary” (e.g., indigenous Indian) law, and British Common Law as unsystematic and therefore barbarous, real social change could only take root with a revolutionary revision in legal practice, a revision that would not hesitate to trifle with the customs and habits of indigenous peoples. While common and customary legal practices exhibited a “superstitious respect for antiquity,” according to Bentham, modern legislation and the creation of written codes could prompt immediate social change in a rationally anticipated direction.[59] “Give me the words of the Koran,” Bentham boasted,

give me the ideas that belong to them; I ask no more: out of them, and them alone, I undertake to produce you a code, which shall contain a hundred times the useful matter there is in that, without any of those absurdities, the existence of which, upon comparison with the ideas of utility we have at present, you cannot but acknowledge.[60]

Although the Bentham/Mill model of social change preceded that of the conservatives, it was not discarded with the development of evolutionary social theory by Maine, Spencer, and others. Its survival into the later part of the century contributed to a subtle duel at the heart of Victorian social theory. Along with competing theories of social change, competing theories of social structure and function stumbled over each other in the pages of learned periodicals and even cohabited uneasily within the pages of single monographs. One particularly prominent tension was that between a machine model of social organization, which seemed to imply the ability freely to engineer, tinker, and reconstruct, and the organic model of the evolutionists, later bequeathed to French and British functionalism, which appeared to favor caution and patience.

Cromer himself used the machine analogy with abandon in Modern Egypt, likening both society itself and the institutions of governance to mechanical devices (although in concert with his understanding of Egyptian society as an organism “instinct with evolutionary force,” this should be enough to wean us of the idea that there is a necessary correspondence between models of structure and change, or that there is much consistency either in individual thought or in the intellectual field as a whole).[61] But while Mitchell sees a transformation of Egyptian social imagery in the 1890s, where “the body as a harmony of interacting parts has been replaced with the body as an apparatus,” in fact the two models of social order and social transformation engaged in a desultory battle for European and Egyptian minds for most of the century. Not only was there no clear winner, but the normative image of either the social machine or the evolving social body is deeply ambiguous (viz., Durkheim's use of “mechanical” for primitive, and “organic” for advanced principles of social organization, a delightful jab at German Romantic scholars who privileged the authentic simplicity of village and field over the cold alienation of city and factory). Both the machine and the evolutionary metaphors for society had as many detractors as they had proponents. And to complicate matters still further, those detractors often recognized the applicability of social models only to denounce their effects.[62]

What is significant for our purposes is this: that politicians, administrators, and intellectuals concerned with the imperial interface between Europe and the East, regardless of the social model they favored, were able to convince themselves that the creation or re-creation of social order in the colonies was less for the purposes of control for its own sake than it was for the purpose of jolting the stalled and backward societies of India and Egypt out of their evolutionary torpor. Cromer's “vitalized and self-existent organism” would regulate itself with emergent structural properties once it was set in motion. Victorian understandings of the relationship between structure and evolution, then, need to be explored further, for they show us, finally, why the distinction between the religious and the secular is such a fragile one.

The British notion that Indians, Egyptians, and the English working classes were in need of an education consisting of restraint and discipline owes its power to cultural roots far deeper than the nascent labor requirements of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, as Christopher Herbert shows in his important book Culture and Anomie, the secular Victorian theory that “natural” human indiscipline necessitated specific disciplinary training grew initially from the religious climate of Christian evangelicalism and “the Wesleyan…story of human nature as a bundle of unruly drives needing to be severely repressed.” [63] Sin, understood as a surrender to unlimited human desire, changed over the course of the nineteenth century into the secular social doctrine of “instinct,” against which all civilization was thought to be a struggle.[64]

But how does civilization restrain us and keep us from acting on our inner nature? “From the point of departure of a text like Ancient Law,” Herbert writes,

a crucial move toward the ethnographic culture concept occurs…when the theory of social control comes to frame itself chiefly not in terms of external agencies of enforcement (patriarchs, sovereigns, laws) but of internalized, unconscious controls which one does not so much obey as simply exhibit—a move rendering the concept of “control,” like that of “freedom,” philosophically ambiguous ever after.[65]

It is clear, then, that Mitchell's characterization of the historical change in Egypt as one “replacing a power concentrated in personal command, and always liable to diminish, with powers that were systematically and uniformly diffused” [66] is in fact little different in one sense from Maine's progression from status to contract, and in another sense, from the general movement in social theory itself from that which understood society as a system of external constraints to that which saw control operating through internal sanctions gained through socialization. As an advance over existing nineteenth-century theories of social dynamics, therefore, this approach, like Foucault's, is ultimately somewhat limited. Where we need to look instead is at the way the contradictions and ambiguities in these theories made education appear as the key to progress.

Accompanying the change in Europe's recipe for social control was an alteration in its evaluation of non-Western societies. In the early part of the nineteenth century, non-Western peoples were thought to suffer from an “anarchical and selfish restlessness” [67] stemming from a lack of behavioral controls that kept them from effectively structuring their wants and achieving social progress. But in mid- to late-century, this vision changes, and the European notion of “civilization” takes on an anomalous cast:

for on the one hand, “civilization” is identified…in the conventional way with a system of fixed restraints upon human drives, and is identified almost in the same breath with fluidity and progressive, expansive movement as against the stultifying fixity of “savage” society. It was apparently in order to resolve the dilemma posed by this highly unstable configuration of ideas that nineteenth-century writers initiated a long campaign to refute the myth of unbridled primitive desire, and…to replace it with something like its very opposite.…What we see…is a broad reversal of assumptions in which “savage” society is transformed from a void of institutional control where desire is rampant to a spectacle of controls exerted systematically upon the smallest details of daily life [through taboo and tradition].[68]

Of course European understandings of the primitive were partly mirror images of their self-understanding.[69] Herbert traces the change itself to the economic depression of the 1870s and the growing subversion of Victorian ideals of discipline. As the notion of institutional discipline, policing, surveillance and control began to draw public criticism,

it became a natural operation now to discover it in its most oppressive forms in primitive society, much as the previous generation of sensibility steeped in Evangelical thinking had constructed its own didactic image of primitives as figures of crazily uncontrolled passion. In contrast to the ethic of emancipated critical thought…tribal societies…were now disparagingly seen as “fettered,” “bound,” “chained down” by mindless conventionality.… Savages' exhorbitant devotion to custom and discipline…is precisely the reason for their (manifest) inferiority to progressive, developing European societies.[70]

Both of these stereotypes are prominent in writings about Egypt, which was considered implicitly primitive despite its objective status as a “high” civilization in its own right.[71] By the second quarter of the twentieth century, Egyptian educators came to believe that their country's political position was due to the chains of custom rather than to unbridled passion, but for the four decades between the British Occupation and Egypt's nominal independence in 1923, both theories coexisted in the worldview of foreign and indigenous elites. And this is precisely why, despite its recognized dangers, education was chosen as a tool of the state's expansion: because it promised simultaneously to constrain and control the irrational impulses of the populace that kept them from advancement, and also to free them of traditional social, behavioral, and intellectual constraints that kept them from advancement. In promising change, progress, and the amelioration of social problems from two opposite philosophical stances—promising all things simultaneously to all people—the school was immune to changes in the philosophy of public policy.

Schooling retains this aura in contemporary educational planning documents that speak of inculcating values representing “the Egyptian character, which has been forged in the country's history and traditions,” and at the same time of developing “the skills that are required to produce a scientifically and technologically sound individual.” [72] The school's ambiguous promises result in the bifurcation of its human product into a stabilizing repository of values, on the one hand, and a skilled engine of change and progress, on the other. In contemporary public policy discourse, the language of national security and the language of economic development, though they appear to be about different aspects of the world, in fact refer to the same thing. This highlights the fact that religious and secular political theories are of a piece, having grown together from the same roots and maintaining, with different vocabularies, the same unstable dialectics of moral responsibility and free will, of imperfection and progress. I would venture to disagree with Lecky, and suggest that the educated, far from being immune to “political Utopias and fanaticisms,” in fact bear as their central sacred image the unborn utopia to be shaped by the school, anticipated always, in nearly millennial terms, as the New Jerusalem just beyond the horizon.

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