- Miseducation:Dalit and Beur Writers on the Antiromance of Pedagogy
Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom.—Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Farida Belghoul's novel Georgette! (1986) spans a single traumatic day in the life of a Beur schoolgirl. Sushila Takbhore's story "Siliya" (1997) traverses the entire educational life of the protagonist from grade school to college and beyond. There are many such examples. The overarching dominance of the educational institution and its apparatus at large, to invoke Althusser's important construction, provides a crucial angle of engagement with the literature of marginality, preoccupied with education in the broadest sense and with the demonstration of an antiromance of pedagogy. This essay considers why the site of the school figures this prominently, this deliberately, in writing by Beurs (descendants of North African immigrants) and Dalits ("untouchable" caste), writing invested in the category of the marginal. As essential subsets of literatures characterized as "ethnic," "marginal," "minor," and so forth, these bodies of texts inevitably negotiate mainstream bureaucratic institutions; indeed, their narrative drive, conflict, humor, and resolution derive from [End Page 346] these entanglements. As such, many of these texts anchor disparate elements and moments via the trope of the school. Preoccupied with the narration of childhood experience, Dalit and Beur texts necessarily include the school within their scope, a site for a series of pivotal symbolic associations. Often, the central underlying conflict in these texts, between an individual who recognizes his own marginality and the society that spurns him, is realized during the period of childhood, and the major vehicle for this conflict is the school, serving as it does as the representative of that which is other, as the representative of that which establishes a foreign order. The resolution of that conflict is precisely what has earned such narratives their often vague association with the bildungsroman, that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European "novel of development" or "novel of formation," theorized resolutely by Franco Moretti and others.1
And yet, existing within the narrow confines of one literary life, the site of the school in both the Beur and Dalit literature discussed here persists as a site of liberatory connotations. As a concrete representation of the larger project of education, the school becomes an architectural embodiment of hope, adulthood, and economic success, the building itself often becoming colored by such longings. These emancipatory overtones are signaled by what have become the obligatory moments of bildungsromanesque stories of marginality: the opening of the new notebook and the blank sheets of paper, the bringing home of the progress report or the news of passing marks. Almost clichéd, education's signpost moments highlight the presupposed liberal message of such literature, catering, it might seem, to the image propagated by governments preaching inclusion, fraternity, and equal opportunity (in addition to financial reward, of course) as among the many virtues of education. In Sushila Takhbore's story "Siliya," as in Azouz Begag's 1986 Le gone du Chaâba [The Kid of Chaaba], for example, we are presented with success stories, stories of overachievers who deftly surmount obstacles to succeed in an academic environment where they are clearly disadvantaged. If success is coded by the student's mastery of the tools of the teacher, then these texts, both narratively and metanarratively, catalogue such mastery. There are the expected hardships, those without which the narrative would not move, but the characters prevail in the end, enacting and embodying some sort of transition.
But on closer examination, that success is tempered and the metanarrative of education and progress debunked. In the work of Beur writers Mehdi Charef and Sakhina Boukhedenna the assumption of public education's political and social power is met with a startling cynicism; for Dalit writers like Takhbore and Dayanand Batohi, that cynicism appears even in the [End Page 347] case higher education, where casteism takes on more clever and insidious forms. Moments of triumph are not without cost, and...