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Colonial Education: A Comparative Analysis of French and American Systems

In this brief essay which discusses the descriptive, analytical, contrastive, and evaluative aspects of colonial education as a special case of educational transfer, I have chosen French and American colonial education for this comparative analysis. Literature review about the French in Algeria and Vietnam and the Americans in the Philippines and Japan and of colonialism, in general, will form the first part of this essay and a comparative aspect of both will follow, culminating in some reflective notes on what can be learned from the illustrations. 

Literature Review 

Descriptions of the salient points of the ideological, administrative, and policy- implementation aspects of French colonial education are particularly derived from Alf Andrew Heggoy’s (1984) “Colonial Education in Algeria: Assimilation and Reaction” and Kelly’s “Teachers and the Transmission of State Knowledge: A Case Study of Colonial Vietnam” in Altbach and Kelly (1984). Heggoy (1984) wrote about the assimilationist/associationist policy of French colonial education in its occupation of Algeria from 1830 to 1962 in which the agenda was to make the colony one of the natios under a greater France as a “civilized entity”.

Although Heggoy noted that the French were “unprepared” as a colonizer, a systematic program of “enlightenment alá French” was successfully carried out under the tutelage of the “soldier-administrators” to develop Algerians into a nation consisting of Franco-Algerians elitist in character and a larger segment of the population as French-speaking Algerians proletarian and marginalized in disposition. In the process of creating such colonial plurality, an imposition of the French language as a medium of instruction through the creation of French madaris was made, destroying the primarily Arabic and Quranic-based system of education already in existence before 1830.

Although at the onset of colonization the Islamic court is allowed to continue functioning and Islam to persevere, French colonials systematically impose control of the schooling system through its imposition of French as a medium of instruction and through its structural assurance that teachers of the madaris and imams be retained to propagate the French language-policy ideology. Whilst language becomes a powerful force for cultural “re-engineering” of the Algerians, the French “enlightenment” project via the assimilationist or associationist policy which “offered philosophies that sought to explain how a dominant European nation should seek to train its African subject”, the policy of creating a “dual-system” of elite-proletariat in character was administered through direct control by Governor Generals of which Inspectorates of Education fall under their jurisdiction. This direct rule allows the colonists to execute an agenda which would “civilize the Algerians into a natio with a deep sense of French consciousness so that they would be able to then function in the modern world.

The 132 years of domination carried out through a highly selective, evolvingly systematic planning ideologically based upon the idea of the superiority of the French, as Heggoy concluded, created a tragedy in the Algerian experience in that by 1962 when Algeria was released from the shackle of domination through a bloody war which killed 2 million people, French colonial education created a French-speaking elite who no longer belong to either culture and an illiterate 90% of the Algerian masses (predominantly Arabs) who violently opposed the over-a-century French rule.

Whilst Heggoy’s (1984) essay focused on the macro analysis of French colonial education as it affects the 90% Arab-Algerians, Gail P. Kelley (1982) looked at the micro-level how Vietnamese teachers, between 1918 to 1938 responded to the imposition of French assimilationist/associationist agenda between within the timeline of French colonialism which began in 1838. Kelly’s analysis looked specifically at issues such as curriculum content, knowledge transmission, textbook use, and interpretation, and how teachers as “highly regarded but lowly-paid” members of the society act independently of the mandates “entrusted” to them by the French-controlled Office of Public Instruction.

As in the case of Algerians, who had their Arabic-Quranic schools before colonization, the Vietnamese too had an indigenous system of education based on Sino-Vietnamese features. Beginning in 1916, a systematic Franconization of Vietnamese education began, orchestrated by the Office of Public Instruction which imposed a top-down curriculum which Vietnamese see as “a ‘cruel parody’ both on their traditions and aspirations”. French values are imposed as superior to those of the natives and through a program of a gradual introduction of French as a medium of instruction and the creation of Franco-Vietnamese schools which are neither French nor Sino-Vietnamese, the assimilationist/associasionist policy was, as the Algerian project, carried out to create ‘French-Indochinese’ subjugated and disempowered from thousands of miles away.

Textbooks written from the perspective of how the French wanted it to be, which stressed moral values through French eyes, became part of the curriculum which, as Kelley wrote “denoted instructional turn to hygiene, manual labor, mathematics, and physical education – subjects alien to Sino-Vietnamese schools – but not necessarily to French schools’ (p.179). Textbooks in history took the imposed view that the French were there to end a Vietnamese past colored by “civil war, exploitation, starvation, strife, and foreign domination.” (p.182) To alter the consciousness of the Vietnamese into a subjugated existence as farmers and laborers, the rural peoples’ pastoral life is glorified and their urban life is propagated as a portrait of decadence.

Thus, French consciousness as an ideology was propagated, state-controlled school administration was instituted, and the policy of assimilation and association was orchestrated as agencies of socialization in the Vietnamese experience. Nonetheless, Kelly’s article primarily pointed out too that teachers as cultural mediators and protesters of French colonialism played a significant role in demystifying knowledge of French superiority by selectively transmitting state-legitimated knowledge which, in the end perhaps contributed to the Vietnamese psychological strength in her movement for liberation.

American colonial education, as will be illustrated in the Filipino and Japanese experience it has the agenda of decentralizing, democratizing, and demilitarizing. Douglas Foley’s (1984) “Colonialism as schooling in the Philippines, 1898-1970” and Harry Wray’s (1991) “Change and Continuity in Modern Japanese Educational History: Allied Occupational Reforms Forty Years Later” illustrates the ideology, administration, and practice of American colonial education. Foley (1984) argued that the democratization and decentralization ideology of American colonial education, through its collaborative type of administration by educational professionals and through its policy of ensuring basic education on a massive scale cannot necessarily be looked at as progressive and humanistic but rather must be understood as part of the American agenda of making a “showcase of democracy” out of its colonies. It is a project to integrate the colony into the then-emerging global market centered at the headquarters of American industrial capitalism.

Vocational education and its corollary — community education — is expanded and overexpanded so that a nation of citizens literate enough to be good producers for the American economy can be created with the collaboration of power-seeking Filipino elites. Filipinos were made to crave credentials in the euphoria of democratization whilst the agenda for American colonials under the garb of the Progressive movement was to create a safe and sound enough social structure that would play the tune of American transnational capitalism.

Foley’s analysis, perhaps categorized as coming from a Marxist dependency perspective and drawn from a political-economic framework of analysis is excellent in its debunking of the often held thesis that American Progressive education as a democratizing project is pseudo-democratic in its goal of creating a long-term strategic supply of cheap pool of labor. Wray (1991) in his analysis of the short-term allied occupation reform in Japan’s educational history looked at the collaborative aspect of American colonial educational professionals who worked with the Monbasho (The Japanese Ministry of Education).

The American organ of colonial educational restructuring, the Division of the Civil Information and Education (CIE) Section in its attempt to decentralize and demilitarize Japan by attempting to dissolve the fundamentally hierarchy-based, meritocratic-emphasized and state-legitimated education system the Japanese, as a militaristic-chivalric nation has built over centuries. The CIE introduced concepts such as mass-based schooling and relaxation on educational students, progressive curriculum reforms, compulsory 9-year schooling, teacher training, and a range of other decentralizing and democratizing tools which are antithetical or in opposition to the practices of pre-colonial Japan.

Wray’s writing, set in a bias tone against all aspects of the progressive movement, concluded with the idea that most of the areas of structured reforms that are kept after the end of the brief occupation are those which were “close to the hearts of Monbasho’s officials”; those which are predictable of the Japanese character as a compulsive borrower of ideas.

Drawing from Eric Carlton’s (1994) “Occupation: A Typology” to look at French and American colonial education ideology, administration, and policy, I would argue that both empires to a certain degree practice assimilation. In many an analysis of colonialism, it is said that the French are assimilationist/associationists with its policy to make colonies French in language, culture, and thinking which at the same time having a political-economic agenda of exploiting the resources of its colonies. A similar judgment can be made on the Americans; they attempt to assimilate the Filipinos into thinking like them, speaking their language, and being as conscious and democratic as Americans while at the same time having the political agenda of exploiting the human resources to fill the coffers of Wall Street.

Whilst the French language is propagated to be superior, English is the means to achieve a similar effect in the case of American colonization given its status as lingua franca. The Americans are perhaps more successful in the Philippines than in Japan as occupation spanned almost a century. Had they been given more time in Japan, even the crystallized and rock-solid state Shintoistic foundation of the Japanese political philosophy would have been eroded or blended with the culture of consumerism and laissez-faire capitalism.

Carlton’s typology, albeit enlightening in its delineating of thirteen styles of colonialism seemed too specialized and particularizing in differentiating one colonial from another. His tried to guide us into believing that there indeed existed a continuum of humane and barbaric colonials throughout different historical era whereas the question remains: are there good and bad colonials or are the mere colonials who are good and bad planners?

Comparing French and American colonial education

As an overarching description of the paradigm of operation of French and American colonial education, it can be said that the former utilizes the policy of assimilation through such features as the widespread use of French language, enrollment limitation, and dual nature of schooling whilst the latter utilizes the policy of democratization, decentralization, and demilitarization through such features as the use of the English language, implementation of progressive educational principles, and systematization of basic education on a massive scale.

Ideologically, as noted by White (1996) who studied signposts of French and British colonial education, the French assimilation policy which led to “associationism”, is meant to be a crusade by France to bring the natives of its colonies to the level of modernity and to create a French consciousness. This mission carried out via the imposition of the French language as a medium of instruction, and a dual-nature school system supported by the work of the church has been successfully carried out over a century of colonization of nations in Africa and Asia.

The ideological foundation of American colonialism is based upon the creation of vocational and civic literacy through a mass democratization process which would also bring natives to the level of “democratic and consumer-producer consciousness” able to function well in the global market of industrial capitalism. This ideology illustrating the educational manifestation of the logic of American capitalist expansion is well argued by political-economists such as Martin Carnoy (1974) in Education as Cultural Imperialism, Robert F. Lawson (1994) in “The American Project for Educational Reform in Central Europe” and Immanuel Wallerstein (1990) in “Culture as Ideological Battleground of the Modern World-System”.

Thus, whilst comparatively, it can be said that both ideologies have the similarity of raising respective “consciousness” – French and American capitalist and consumerism – the difference lie in the notion that whilst the French see its cultural value as a force majeure for its civilizing agenda, the Americans see historical-materialistic gains within the logic of advanced capitalism as agenda for its colonial education project. Administratively, the French and Americans differ in their operations in that the former utilizes direct rule via the setting up of Inspectorates of Education to oversee its assimilationist project, the Americans worked collaboratively with the colonies’ Ministry of Education with the setting up of administrative organs staffed by progressive educationists.

Perhaps the unique development of the American political system and the idea of democracy derived from a succession of ideas such as “political revolution, naturalism, realism, and liberalism,” according to Lawson (1994) not replicable elsewhere, conduced American colonials to work together in collaboration in transplanting the Progressive ideas in its colonies. French- perceived racial superiority on the other hand conduced them to administer the colonies in a somewhat British-styled bureaucratic manner. In terms of policy implementation, the highly selective and limited enrollment of the dual-nature system of French colonial education is designed to create an administrative elite amongst the Franco-Algerians and to leave a larger segment of the population with a low literacy rate enough to become conscious of the “superiority” of the French empire.

The Americans on the other hand, perhaps having become astute students of colonial strategies, provided widespread basic education for vocational and civic literacy first to the elite of the colonies and next to the masses so that all will be conscious of their role as good workers in the American-based capitalist empire. Thus, the paradigms of colonial operation in both empires have their similarities and differences in terms of ideology, administration, and policy in that one prides in racial narcissism and the other in the beauty of capitalist advancement. However varied the modus operandi though, the response from the colonies are similar in that revolts were precipitated as, echoing Marx, “the masses have nothing to lose except their chains” in reclaiming their tradition and dignity. 

Conclusions for Research on Educational Transfer and Borrowing 

Studies on colonial education as a special case of educational transfer have perhaps provided us with voluminous information on the “whys” and the “hows” of colonialism. In the case of French and American colonialism education above, the “hows” are primarily discussed and the “whys”, are widely known in that historical materialistic and political-economic rationales have elsewhere been widely documented.

Questions such as “what has” and “what still is” being transferred and borrowed within the context of “world without borders” as we approach the year 2000 seem to be fertile areas of investigation. Areas pertinent to “what has” been transferred from the colonial education system might be the “quality” aspect of French colonial education and the “quantity” aspect of the American; of what constitutes a good borrowed meritocratic and egalitarian dimension of the experiences.

Modern management theory would subsume this dimension under “best practice” educational models. Steiner Khamsi (1997) for example suggested a “culturalist” perspective of looking at this fertile ground in answering the question of “what has” been transferred or borrowed. It seemingly moved beyond the systems and conflict paradigm of looking at comparative education in the manner policies and models are enculturated by independent nation-states.

What is retained and modified from legacies of colonialism is discussed in light of rhetoric of best practices in educational transfers and borrowings. “What still is” retained as practices not necessarily liberatory to education – policies and models subliminally conducive to late capitalist formation in the areas of foreign aid, technology transfer, and mega investment project – is another area of research potentials. In this area of suggestion, “what still is” I believe must utilize the tools of analysis which look at Center – periphery, the role of transnational corporations, the global movement of capital, and sublime cultural-ideological formation within the matrix of Center-periphery modern states, as important emerging dimensions of comparative education.

How do independent nations maintain sovereignty by, borrowing models and enculturing them intelligently enough so that “neo-colonialism” in the form of cultural imperialism pervasive and postmodern in its construct, as Albert Memmi (1991) skillfully analyzed, will not be a feature? In recapitulating the question of “what has” been and “what still is” in comparative education, research must take “liberation” as a nexus in constructing a postmodern typology of model practices that have illustrated how certain independent nations have successfully built “national shields” against future colonials through their culturally powerful, technologically appropriate and sovereignly sound education systems.

Perhaps in this respect, we can look at Cuba, Tanzania, Iran, Switzerland, Malaysia, and Singapore as starting points for such analyses. Perhaps too, comparative education as an emerging field of study can be all the more enriched in its “generalizing” stage not only to be used “to explain and predict” (4th level) but also to be “enlightened by such and hence to construct” models liberatory in manifestations for, shouldn’t education means liberation more than development?


Carlton, E. (1994). Occupation: A typology. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 14 (3/4/5), 153-176.

Carnoy, M. (1974). Education as cultural imperialism. New York: McKay. Foley, D. (1984).

Colonialism and schooling in the Philippines, 1898-1970. In P. G. Altbach and G. P. Kelley (Eds.). Education and the colonial experience (pp.33-53). New Brunswick: Transaction.

Heggoy, A. A. (1984). Colonial education in Algeria: assimilation and reaction. In P. G. Altbach & Gail P. Kelley (Eds.). Education and the colonial experience (pp.97-116). New Brunswick: Transaction.

Kelley, G. P. (1982). Teachers and the transmission of state knowledge: A case study of Colonial Vietnam. In P. G. Altbach, Robert F. Arnove, & G. P. Kelley (Eds.). Comparative Education (pp. 176-194). New York: Macmillan.

Lawson, R. F. (1994). The American project for educational reform in Central Europe. Compare, Vol. 24, No. 3., 247-258

Memmi, A. (1991). The colonizer and the colonized. Boston: Beacon Press.

Steiner-Khamsi, G. (1997) Transferring education, displacing reforms. Comparative Education Review

Wallerstein, I. (1990). Culture as the ideological battleground of the modern world-system. Theory, Culture& Society, 7, 31-35.

White, B. W. (1996). Talk about school: education and the colonial project in French and British Africa (1860-1960). Comparative Education, 32 (1), 9-25.

Wray, H. (1991). Change and continuity in modern Japanese educational history: Allied occupational reforms forty years later. Comparative Education Review, 35 (3), 447-476.

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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