“…the hope is to make the work of representation, especially in its ‘production and organization of difference’, more visible, to make it a subject of inquiry, a constant supplement to the curriculum by which we teach and live (Willinksy, 1994, p. 619).
In this statement, Willinsky posits that the way knowledge is represented and organized within curriculum can provide an interesting focus of study, in a sense acting as a meta-curriculum supplementary to the main objectives of the curriculum. In particular, he suggests that there is value in undertaking a critical examination of the way different groups are represented. In the article, this quote follows a discussion of the work of Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said, who both tried to bring focus to the work of representation and the cultural act of othering, or constructing difference.
This quote stands out as a strong reflection of Willinksy’s overarching argument in the paper. He states that it is undeniable that colonialism impacts the way different groups are represented in curriculum and curricular materials design in Canada. He explains how these representations continue to reflect a certain way of looking at the world and how this can result in othering of these cultures. He compares it to a type of cultural voyeurism, turning students into educational tourists while risking the continued treatment of non-dominant groups as different or exotic. However, his thesis is that rather than eliminating these (mis)representations from educational materials, that educators should explicitly draw on them as a tool for framing and exploring colonialism by using them as the basis of discussion around constructions of self-identity, other-identity, and the societal structures that lead to both.
The value of doing this would be to allow students to recognize and reflect upon biases or prejudices that are embedded within cultural representations, and to understand “how difference has been historically constructed on a national and racial basis” (Willinksy, 1994, p. 620). One aspect of the article that I found particularly interesting was discussion around how representation of different cultural groups can result in students themselves feeling marginalized because of affiliations they may have with those groups.
Although the article focuses on colonialism in Canada, I think that we can apply the idea of a meta-analysis of representation in curriculum more locally to study how knowledge is organized in specific academic settings. As Sumara et. al. point out, decisions on how curriculum is organized and represented are made locally and are “always rooted in local needs, worries, desires, and imaginings.” (2001, p. 159), thus studying one particular curriculum can provide insight into the local culture or discipline in which that curriculum resides.
As an example, studying medical education through this lens could provide interesting insight in the field of medicine and into the communities in which medicine is practised. In medical education, non-white patients are disproportionately underrepresented in the materials, which can ultimately reinforce disparities in health care (Nolen, 2020, p. 2490). This problem doesn’t exactly align with Willinksy’s concern of how difference is constructed in the curriculum; instead, it is an issue of how different groups can be excluded from the curriculum. However, the degree to which a group is or is not represented can also provide insight into the culture in which that curriculum was constructed.
Interestingly, in the MD program, diversity is a theme and specific discrete clinical cases have been designed to ensure that it is covered. However, similarly to how the efforts to develop a multicultural classroom in the early 90s in Canada had the potential to reinforce rather than dismantle colonialism, this marginalized representation of non-whiteness could risk “merely [introducing] more subtle versions of ‘incorporated disparity’ instead of challenging an organization of discourse that justifies the status quo” (Brydon qtd. in Willinsky, 1994, p. 619). In a way, the diversification of the curriculum in this way (as discrete pieces of the curriculum meant to represent diversity instead of embedded throughout all of the content), does continue to marginalize those groups. In this instance, I think there is value in examining the representation of minority groups in medical education materials and using it to instigate a discussion on how this might reflect heath care disparities in practice. However, I think that problems of under-representation and marginalization also need to be ameliorated and not simply preserved and studied as a relict of colonialism.
Sumara, D., Davis, B., & Laidlaw, L. (2001). Canadian Identity and Curriculum Theory: An Ecological, Postmodern Perspective. Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne de l’éducation, 26(2), 144–163.
Nolen, L. (2020). How Medical Education Is Missing the Bull’s-eye. The New England Journal of Medicine, 382(26), 2489–2491.
Willinsky, J. (1994). After 1492‐1992: a post‐colonial supplement for the Canadian curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 26(6), 613–629. https://doi.org/10.1080/0022027940260603