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Cover: Lessons in Legitimacy: Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Rise of State Schooling in British Columbia

Lessons in Legitimacy: Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Rise of State Schooling in British Columbia

By Sean Carleton

Review By Alex Gagne

June 15, 2023

BC Studies no. 218 Summer 2023  | p. 130-132

Lessons in Legitimacy is a comprehensive volume that places the development of schooling in British Columbia between 1849 and 1930 in the broader context of an ongoing cycle of colonial dispossession and capitalist accumulation. Instead of approaching the histories of public schools, day schools, industrial schools, and Residential Schools as separate entities—which is a problem that plagues many historical subfields—Sean Carleton’s text brings these parallel studies into discourse. Carleton addresses a critical gap in the historiography of schooling and settler colonialism, which often tackles only “one plank of the larger colonial project” at a time (5). Through the work of historians of the Canadian state and political economists, Lessons in Legitimacy portrays schools not simply as assimilative institutions but as “agencies of legitimacy” administered by government officials in “conscious and unconscious ways…to secure hegemony” as tools in a larger project of rule (11).

A great deal of consideration was given to the structuring of Lessons in Legitimacy. The book is divided into three parts, with each part consisting of two chapters that compare the schooling of settlers with the schooling of Indigenous peoples in a “parallel structure to trace the distinct but overlapping histories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous schooling” (13). In this way, each major part presents two historical realities that are intended to be read “contrapuntally” to disrupt the reproduction of static historical narratives.

Chapter one focuses on the development of the Common School system, while Chapter two focuses on the attempts of Christian missionaries to carve out separate schooling initiatives and the subsequent Indigenous resistance to these mission schools. Part two consists of two chapters that illustrate the growing role of the state in the education of Indigenous and Non-indigenous peoples. Finally, part three demonstrates the increasing involvement of the federal government in consolidating and expanding “Indian education”, while also showcasing moments of resistance by Indigenous parents and students. Taken together, each part successfully illustrates that early government schooling, intended for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, often overlapped, and aided in the settling and dispossession of land for the benefit of the settler population.

Each part of Lessons in Legitimacy effectively presents parallel narratives, but part two is particularly noteworthy for its demonstration of the inner workings of state power. Building on concepts of state power posited by Phillip Corrigan, Bruce Curtis, and many others, Carleton reveals that late nineteenth-century schooling in British Columbia was not a system “of the people,” but rather one designed to shape children into citizens and legitimize state power (101). By effectively sequencing the chapters in this part, Carleton exposes the dual exploitation carried out by the Canadian state. On one hand, the provincial government of British Columbia instituted compulsory education and a curriculum focused on settler interests, ensuring a steady stream of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students were inculcated with a settler-focused curriculum and values. On the other hand, the federal government in Ottawa established a network of mission day-schools, boarding schools, and industrial schools, all aimed at transforming Indigenous Peoples into “useful subjects” (140).  In actuality, these schools promoted curricula which assumed Indigenous Peoples were “racially inferior” and ensured they would only have access to labour-heavy jobs which ensured their “lower status in society” (128).

Certainly, while some readers may feel that Lessons in Legitimacy is heavily laden with historical theoretical concepts, these lenses provide a nuanced and comprehensive analysis of the intricate interplay between colonialism, capitalism, schooling, and the role of the state. Rather than presenting the Canadian state as a uniform entity of social control and legitimization, Carleton’s multi-layered approach offers a crucial and insightful perspective on the history of schooling—one that is sensitive to the spaces between state power, and the paradoxical nature of the colonial project in Canada.

Publication Information

Carleton, Sean. Lessons in Legitimacy: Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Rise of State Schooling in British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2023. 294 pp. $34.95 paper.