To Go To The Root


Painting by M. De Norvins, 1839

By Duncan Riley


“In Haiti, they eat mud with sugar and water, they make mud cakes.” This simple piece of knowledge, gleaned from a night spent volunteering at Feed My Starving Children, becomes for the child their only window into the Haitian reality. Five hundred years of colonialism, of a brutal and heroic struggle for independence, of reparations imposed by French warships, of invasions by US Marines and dictators backed by Washington, all are obfuscated by a simple statement of “how things actually are.” By separating the lives of Haitian workers from their  historical context, by making it “just the way things are,” that short story about mud cakes removes Haiti’s poverty from the realm of human understanding, it makes it both transcendent and immutable, a fact of existence rather than a product of historical forces. This preference, in both our society and our education system, to state what is rather than to analyze how it came to be, is born not of a detached or neutral attitude towards facts, but rather of the need of the powerful to justify their position in society, for to accept society as it exists is to accept all its inequalities and injustices. Indeed, as Camus observed, “to accept the world as it is”, to accept both the slave and the master, is “in the last analysis… to give one’s blessing to the stronger of the two – namely, the master.”[1] As such, just as feudal society justified its hierarchies and inequalities through the assertion that they were ordained by God, bourgeois society justifies itself with an appeal to a status quo as alien to humanity as any heaven, a status quo that was not created by human action, and consequently cannot be changed by it. Thus, if education is to encourage critical thinking and fulfill its emancipatory potential, it must not encourage students simply to accept what is, but instead encourage them to go to the root of the social problems that today threaten to devour society.

To go to the root means, simply, to accept nothing as it is, to analyze every facet of modern society, and to find the historical forces that shape our present social order and its injustices. In the case of poverty in Haiti then, the first step must be to ask why there are people in Haiti who have no food. From this first question, a long chain of questions must necessarily emerge, whose answers cannot fail to touch on not just the problem of poverty, but also upon imperialism, upon war, and upon the effects of climate change on the developing world. Finally, once this chain of questions has run its course, one more question must inevitably come to the fore: “In a world of such great abundance, is it fair that some should eat mud while others live in wealth and splendor?” And when one asks this question, when one arrives at the root of society and finds it rotting, the first bud of a new society begins to sprout from the earth, bursting from that withered old edifice into the dawn of a new day.



[1] Albert Camus, The Rebel, (New York City, NY: Alfred A Knopf, 1956), 77.

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