The Education of Gayatri Spivak
Gayatri Spivak (Photograph by Frank Fournier)
Not long after she started a rural literacy project in one of West
Bengal's poorest regions, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — leading
postcolonial critic, translator of Derrida, high priestess of literary
theory — asked the schoolchildren she was working with to do something
very simple: write a little about themselves, on their own.
Spivak was staying in a village a day's train journey from Kolkata, the
former Calcutta, and conducting one-on-one encounters with young children
who live in abject poverty, without even running water and electricity.
She had been visiting this part of India for years and knew well the
problems in its primary-education system: the government's neglect of
rural areas, the 80-percent illiteracy rate, the emphasis in the poorest
schools on rote learning and memorization. The gap between middle-class
schools and those for the poor is what Spivak calls, in her scholarly
writing, "an absolute and accepted divide, the consolidation of
continuing class apartheid" in India.
Still, even she was surprised by what happened next. "I hadn't realized
there was no 'on their own,'" Spivak recalls. "They would write exactly
what they did the day before, and when that was all used up, because
their lives are the same as far as they're concerned, then they would
write, 'A cow has two ears, two eyes, four legs, one tail.'" They were
repeating something they had memorized.
"I could not imagine heads that had been jammed shut," she says. "It's a
killing of the imagination."
This "killing of the imagination" is exactly what Spivak has been working
quietly to change for nearly 20 years by setting up schools and
teacher-training programs in several Bengali districts. Through her
nonprofit organization, Spivak, who is Columbia University's Avalon
Foundation professor in the humanities, provides funds to support seven
primary schools in one of the poorest corners of the globe — a project
that she calls the most difficult and challenging chapter in her career.
Her aim is to train teachers to instill critical-intelligence skills in
children who are cut off from mainstream Indian society. "Since India
constantly brags about being the world's largest democracy, and this is a
large sector of the electorate, what I'm trying to do is develop rituals
of democratic habits," she says. Spivak has not brought in new textbooks
and programs, believing instead that the schools should use the national
curriculum in the hope that students will be prepared to enter India's
secondary schools on an equal footing with others.
She is the founder and chief donor to the Pares Chandra and Sivani
Chakravorty Memorial Literacy Project (named for her parents), directing
some of her salary to it as well as money she made translating the
fiction of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, who has written about the
plight of Indian tribal people. To serve on the project's board, she
recruited several former graduate students and colleagues who shared her
commitment to democratic education. Spivak estimates that her support for
the project over nearly two decades, including her regular visits,
amounts to about $500,000 so far.
She approaches what she calls "the ethical task of teaching" with few if
any assumptions about what works or what she can accomplish. When pressed
about larger educational methods or goals, she insists that, reputation
aside, she does not want to theorize or make generalizations, for fear of
turning the project into something to be analyzed. She is reluctant even
to give interviews about the schools. Instead, she says, her commitment
is to dispense with the idea of knowing what's best for people, and her
task is "to learn from below." "As an intellectual, I want to be free not
to have a pre-set goal," she says. "If you know the answer as you go in,
you won't be able to learn yourself."
Spivak, 65, who is frequently mentioned with the literary critics Homi
Bhabha and the late Edward Said, has made her name with pathbreaking
contributions in deconstruction, feminism, and Marxism. In 1976 she came
to national attention for her translation of Jacques Derrida's Of
Grammatology, which introduced deconstruction to an American audience.
Later, in the 1980s and 90s, she published key essays in the emerging
field of postcolonial studies, notably "Can the Subaltern Speak?," which,
in dense, difficult prose, offered a feminist critique of the idea of the
subaltern, someone who because of social status is denied agency, while
doing a close reading of sati, or widow self-immolation. Her work, while
praised for its brilliance in drawing on disparate theoretical threads
and for "leaving most other cultural theorists looking dismally
parochial," as the critic Terry Eagleton wrote, has also been dismissed
In her office at Columbia, surrounded by shelves of the scholarly
journals to which she has contributed over the years, Spivak holds forth
on learning from below while making references to Schiller's ideas of
aesthetic education, Gramsci's commitment to traditional education, and
Du Bois's notion of educating African-Americans in the "talented tenth."
A tall, elegant woman with a short crop of cranberry-tinged hair, she is
formidable and occasionally theatrical — a demeanor quickly transformed
by an easy laugh. In conversation she returns to the importance of the
imagination and of encouraging critical intelligence, but not just for
utilitarian purposes. "The imagination is the one thing that cannot be
fully digitalized, because it is the exception," she says. "It's what
escapes the program."
For someone whose theoretical work has been described as opaque and
impenetrable, even for academic audiences, Spivak's involvement with the
hands-on details of teacher recruitment and classroom instruction could
seem surprising. In fact, her colleagues say she has worked hard to build
trust for her efforts among the villagers, meeting with local leaders and
navigating the state bureaucracy. "It might be hard to imagine how
someone who talks the way she does in public could also talk and maneuver
among tribal bosses and local power brokers," says Thomas Keenan, an
associate professor of comparative literature at Bard College, who serves
as a director of Spivak's project. "Turns out she's pretty good on her
Spivak has had to be good on her feet ever since since arriving in the
United States in 1961, a 19-year-old woman with, as she puts it, "a
tremendous amount of confidence." A graduate of the University of
Calcutta, she borrowed money to enroll at Cornell University, figuring
(in spite of that confidence) that the two other American universities
she had heard of, Harvard and Yale, were too good for her. At Cornell, in
the comparative-literature program, she met the literary theorist Paul de
Man, who became her mentor, directing her dissertation on Yeats. Well
educated, raised in a progressive, middle-class family in Kolkata, she
was nonetheless a rarity at Cornell, a South Asian woman among a majority
of white men.
Now an elite scholar who has occupied a series of prestigious academic
positions (this year she was named a university professor, Columbia's
highest academic rank), Spivak has, as a postcolonial critic, raised
questions about the nature of knowledge and resistance. Western
intellectual, third-world woman: Spivak is both insider and outsider.
In her native India, where she remains a citizen, she attempts to reach a
population as far from her own metropolitan culture as possible. The gulf
can sometimes be unbreachable, she concedes: "I cannot from that kind of
upbringing be able to understand anything about the needs of these
The remote West Bengali villages in which Spivak works are inhabited by
indigeneous nomadic tribes, many with their own languages. The "tribals,"
as they are known, live outside mainstream Hindu society and the caste
system and are thought of in some quarters in India as primitive and
uneducable. Not all tribal people send their children to school, because
they are oriented to oral traditions and believe that real education
takes place in the family.
"The Indian Constitution guarantees primary schooling, and, by law, there
should be schools, but these people have been neglected for millennia,"
says Benjamin Conisbee Baer, an assistant professor of comparative
literature at Princeton University, who serves on the project's board.
The overall literacy rate for West Bengal is just under 70 percent, but
Unicef estimates the literacy rate among tribal children to be less than
20 percent. Standard textbooks are ill suited for the area's teachers,
many of whom are only slightly better educated than the students.
Spivak visits several times a year, staying two nights at each of the
seven schools. "School" in these settings, though, generally refers to a
simple outdoor gathering of children, teacher, and blackboard. She
recruits the teachers, pays their salaries, and provides meals at the
Her approach is the same whether she is teaching a seminar at Columbia or
working with Bengali teachers, she says. "I think that classrooms are
really places where collectivities are formed. It is because I am
confident in myself that I can let myself go and let the directives come
from the people in the class. And where I don't know the answer, I will
"I've seen Gayatri teach where she's sitting with a poem of Wordsworth,"
says Bard's Keenan, "and she's not the famous, fearsome Gayatri Spivak of
reputation. She's very patient at explaining. It is that Gayatri" who
works in these schools, he says.
Spivak is reluctant to cite specific examples of how she interacts with
the students and teachers or of what kind of progress she is making. But
the challenges of reaching the students are daunting, she acknowledges,
and they have sometimes left her feeling helpless.
In a 2002 article in the journal Diacritics, she recounted an episode
several years earlier in which two girls were being taught a lesson about
Nelson Mandela from a textbook passage that she described as
"incomprehensible to student and teacher alike." The girls, one 11 and
the other 15, were not unintelligent; one, in fact, was "strikingly
intelligent." "I ask them some questions," Spivak wrote. "They have
absolutely no clue at all what the piece is about, as they don't about
any piece in the book, about any piece in any book." Spivak spent a few
hours with them, sitting on the floor, trying to explain the lesson, even
though the girls didn't know what Africa was — or, for that matter, West
Bengal. She changed tack and tried to explain the idea of equal rights —
impossible, she noted, in a place with no plumbing, pavement,
electricity, stores, doors, or windows.
"The next morning I asked them to set down what they remembered of the
previous day's lesson," she wrote. "The older one could call up nothing.
The younger one, the more intelligent one, produced this: 'ami ja, tumi
ta, raja here gachhe, what I, that you, the king was defeated.'"
Spivak called that response "a tremendous achievement in context" but
compared with other children, including the best students from the best
schools in Kolkata, with whom these girls are competing, "this is a
Four of Spivak's schools, which were among the project's first, and which
were beginning to bear fruit, were closed last year after one of their
students entered a local high school. The prospect of young boys entering
high school when they were needed for labor was threatening to a tribal
leader, Spivak explains. And while the boy had earned a top rank in his
class, he had begun to protest the quality of state-run education, adding
to the tension.
"It's completely unheard of for a tribal boy to come first in a regular
Indian school," says Spivak. "This young man understood that there was a
difference between being educated and simply coming first. That
[education] is the backbreaking work we try to do."
While the schools' closures were a loss, Keenan says they were also a
testament to the success of teaching young people about speaking up.
People who know Spivak see the Bengali school project as an important
evolution in her career. Keenan observes that while she has a reputation
as a political firebrand, "her most interesting political maneuvers are
deeper and less ideological." With the Bengali project, "she's returned
to the simplest elements of the deconstructive canon — reading, writing,
Her scholarly work raises questions "about what it means to do good,"
says Ritu Birla, an associate professor of history at the University of
Toronto and another director of the project, who was in Spivak's first
Columbia seminar on feminism and decolonization. "Those big questions are
informed by this long-term personal engagement she has, one on one.
"What's been exciting is the integrated relationship between high
academic thinking and a rigorous practice of activism," Birla continues.
"It's a different model for activism in the academy — it's not about
students protesting to get new programs or for divestment. This is really
about thinking about ethics and doing ethics."
Spivak has willed her own estate to the foundation. "Given the fact that
I have worked since 1965, and you know what TIAA-CREF is like, and I have
just been made university professor, I think it will be a small but real
foundation when I die," she says.
But what is "most interesting" about the death of Gayatri Spivak, as she
puts it (she sometimes refers to herself in the third person), is how to
perpetuate what she has started. One possibility is to designate someone
on the ground in India who could continue her efforts, a step that the
project has considered.
"I'm not at all religious — I mean, I'm an atheist — but it's a very
interesting experience that I can only call religious," says Spivak of
talk about her own mortality. Four times a year, when the project's
directors meet, "we have a serious, unsentimental discussion of what is
going to happen after Gayatri dies."
With characteristic elusiveness, Spivak attempts later to describe just
what might result from her work: "You teach how to read and how to
philosophize, and what happens is unexpected, if anything happens. What
happens escapes me."
Section: The Academic Life
Volume 54, Issue 3, Page B16