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12 August 2020 | Story Charlene Stanley | Photo Supplied
Dr Rebecca Swartz’s book Education and Empire: Children, Race and Humanitarianism in the British Settler Colonies, 1833-1880 has been honoured with various international awards.

Dr Rebecca Swartz, postdoctoral scholar in the International Studies Group, received glowing international recognition for her publication: Education and Empire: Children, Race and Humanitarianism in the British Settler Colonies, 1833-1880 (Cham: Palgrave, 2019). 

The book has won the prestigious Grace Abbott Book Prize (best book in English) from the Society for the History of Children and Youth (SHCY), which is awarded biannually, as well as the International Standing Conference for the History of Education (ISCHE) First Book Award. It has also been nominated for the Kevin Brehony prize from the History of Education Society (UK).

“It feels wonderful to have my work recognised by the international academic community,” said a delighted Dr Swartz.

Education as tool for oppression

She explains that the book traces the involvement of government in the education of indigenous people across a number of former British colonies.  

“It shows how education was increasingly seen as a government responsibility towards indigenous people during the nineteenth century. However, this does not mean that there was widespread access to education in the colonies; rather, education was provided along racial lines. In the two major sites of my study, KwaZulu-Natal (then Natal) and Western Australia, education for indigenous people was used to train them as workers, rather than to provide a literary education. The book shows that even when education was posed by imperial and colonial governments as a humanitarian intervention – something that would ‘uplift’, ‘improve’ or convert or ‘civilise’ the population – in settler colonial contexts such as South Africa and Australia, it was part of the apparatus of control and dominance over colonised people.”

For her, the most remarkable thing that her research has brought to light, was how the colonial project was full of contradictions. The imperial government provided education to the very same people it dispossessed of land and coerced into settlers’ labour forces.
“It was important for the British imperial government to appear to be humanitarian in outlook. However, they did not consider halting colonial settlement, and continued to violently colonise other parts of the world. As the nineteenth century progressed, they increasingly turned to rigid racial hierarchies to justify their practices,” says Dr Swartz.

International accolades

The SCHY called Dr Swartz’s work “a tour de force and an impressive template for how to do a multi-sited history where childhood is central to questions of imperial, political and educational history.”

The award committee’s commentary also stated: “Drawing on detailed archival research relating to the education of indigenous children in a range of British settler colonies, Rebecca Swartz offers convincing new insights into the centrality of childhood to shifting ideas around race and indigeneity in the British imperial project.”Some of the criteria considered by adjudicators of the ISCHE award were: Excellence and thoroughness of historical research, innovative and rigorous thinking, use of original and primary materials, and impact on history of education. 

Relevance for SA education today

Dr Swartz believes the book shows that education (both schooling and broader social education, such as teaching children good manners and morals, for example) is always reflective of broader political contexts.

“My work shows how in this country, education systems were actually set up to support and sustain forms of colonial rule by keeping certain skills, institutions, and systems of knowledge away from the majority of the population, while simultaneously denigrating their pre-existing knowledge and education systems. We need to understand more about the colonial origins of our education practices if we are to radically shift these in order to make education more equitable and inclusive,” she explains. 

ISG stimulating intellectual excellence

Dr Swartz describes the International Studies Group as “the most stimulating intellectual home that I have had in my research career to date”. She is grateful to be part of a community of brilliant scholars from all over the world, guided by Prof Ian Phimister, ISG Head, sharing ideas in formal seminars and also enjoying informal exchanges of ideas over coffee in the mornings.

“Prof Phimister has been a wonderful host and mentor. He is always available for advice and to read work, but also allows us postdocs to get on with what we do best: research and writing.”

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