Mass Literacy and Mobilizational States, 1880–1940: Perspectives from North America, China, and Central Asia

AHA Session 188
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Room 502 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Miao Feng, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Miao Feng, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Session Abstract

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw shifts in ideas about citizenship and government across the world, with states beginning to view their constituencies as populations to mobilize rather than simply subjects to administer. One effect of this shift was the emergence of what Adeeb Khalid has termed modern “mobilizational states,” which actively intervened in the everyday lives of their citizens to shape their societies into an integrated whole that could be mobilized for political, economic, or military purposes. The development of universal education among formerly nonliterate segments of the population was central to many, if not all, of these mobilizational projects. This panel seeks to compare projects for literacy expansion in this period by considering three examples in their local contexts. Such a historicizing discussion is especially valuable for a subject like literacy education, which is sometimes tinged with visions of timeless primitivism being overcome by inevitable forces of modernity in an ahistorical fashion.

All the panelists focus on populations at the fringes of central power, which literacy was supposed to help integrate– Native American communities that had been pushed onto reservations, communities of rural “common people” (pingmin) in China, and Kazakh nomadic communities that were being settled onto collective farms. The United States, China, and the Soviet Union were not formally colonial contexts, but they conceptualized these populations targeted for literacy education in colonial terms, as backwards groups in need of civilizing influence. At the same time, the rationale for literacy education was that of an integrationist modern state, meant to create assimilated, useful citizens from marginalized communities. The subjects under consideration in these papers will thus allow the panel to investigate the overlap between colonial frameworks and modern nation-states.

The first paper, by Justin Gage, is a useful starting point, because it immediately disrupts the tendency to assume that the significance of literacy expansion in a given setting can be adequately understood from the uses ascribed to it by official policy. In fact, he argues, Native Americans used literacy to undermine the state assimilationist policy that promoted it. The second paper, by Zach Smith, takes an intellectual history approach, looking at conceptual nuances in the development of Chinese campaigns to promote popular literacy in rural areas. It helps us to see how Chinese scholars, activists, and administrators participated in international conversations about education and citizenship, while, at the same time, working from their own rootedness in the Chinese context. The third paper, by Rebekah Ramsay, looks at the ways in which the Soviet ideal of universal literacy shaped Kazakh participation in Soviet society as newly minted citizens. The commentator, Miao Feng, will bring to her remarks an expertise in the history of Chinese educational and cultural reforms during this period.

See more of: AHA Sessions