, , , , , , ,

This semester I’m teaching Indian philosophy and spent a lot of time thinking about pedagogy. It’s hard for me to do that for very long without thinking about the best teacher I ever had, Warwick Armstrong, who taught me as a McGill undergrad over twenty years ago. I tried to contact him recently to let him know what a difference he had made, and found that that would not be possible: Warwick Armstrong is no longer with us.

I missed my chance to tell Warwick how great he was. But I can at least let the world know.

Warwick – there was never any question of calling him Professor Armstrong – embraced the radical pedagogy of Paulo Freire. He removed the desks from his classrooms and would begin by having us sit in a circle on the floor – but before long would have us standing to enact interactive dramatic performances. Each student group’s “presentations” would involve the rest of the class in recreating a historical scenario that made a point about the scenario we were trying to tell.

I’ve been a little timid to embrace all of Warwick’s vision in my own classes. But I am following up this semester on one of his more modest innovations: an intellectual journal where students privately express their reactions to the week’s work, making connections to the world and their own lives as well as other texts. I’ve been delighted with how well it’s working, with students engaging with Indian ideas in a way I’ve scarcely seen before.

Some might imagine such teaching innovations gimmicky. But they were not and are not. They conveyed the content Warwick’s ideas to us in a way that has left a lasting impression twenty years later. Warwick was a professor in the truest sense, in that he had something to profess. There was no doubt about where he stood; he was passionate about his ideas and wanted to share them with his students. As a headstrong youth I clashed with him and fought with him about them, but he always reacted in the best possible way: listening patiently and respectfully offering meaningful counterarguments that started with me where I was. As a result I never quite went all the way to his worldview, but I absorbed far more of it than I might otherwise have.

Those ideas of his have been with me more than ever in the past two years. Warwick wore his far-left credentials on his sleeve; people outside the program gravitated to his courses for his reputation as one of the most radical professors at McGill. But Warwick was a particular kind of left-winger, a rare breed in the ’90s: he was a nationalist. Not a nationalist for any one country; I am not sure I even know what his citizenship was. His life (born in New Zealand with Croatian ancestry, teaching in Canada, retiring in the UK) was a cosmopolitan practice somewhat at odds with his nationalist theory. That theory was an advocacy of nationalism – and of what we now regularly call populism.

Warwick rejected everything about the Clintonian consensus of globalization, free trade, open borders. He believed in the self-determination of peoples. Of colonial subjects, to be sure – his research was on Latin America. But we never read that research in class. His focus, even in a course nominally about international development, was on Europe – he would tell the historical story of how large European states would homogenize and suppress their own internal minorities, in a way that could be viewed with hindsight as a dry run for colonialism.

Nor was he satisfied with the distinction commonly made (as for example by Michael Ignatieff) between a supposedly healthy “civic” nationalism and dangerous “ethnic” nationalism. For him, cultural – “ethnic” – nationalism was a way people could democratically express control of their own affairs against outside forces that did not understand them. He sympathized deeply with the nationalisms of Scotland, of Catalonia – and yes, of Québec, at a time when tensions were running very high for English-Canadian students at the province’s most prestigious anglophone university. It was a hard message for us to hear.

But it has been Warwick’s ideas, above all, that have helped me make sense of the world today. Most people I know seemed to find “Brexit” a freakish abomination – inexplicable at best, the expression of racist hate at worst. But to me it made sense. Had I been eligible to vote in Britain I probably would have voted Remain, but it was not so hard for me to understand the appeal of Leave. Of course people want their own elected government to have control over their state’s policies and borders, rather than being subject to faceless bureaucrats working under a flag no one salutes. Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be about? The loss of national sovereignty may well be worth it, for the many opportunities it provides. It is still a loss. Warwick Armstrong, I suspect, would have voted for Brexit from the left, in a way that more than makes sense to me.

Warwick exuded interdisciplinarity. He was a professor in the geography department – I was a geography joint major as an undergrad – but his courses were primarily historical. And, long before I took up philosophy as a life focus, those courses taught me a great deal about philosophy, the philosophy of nationalism.

Warwick turned me on to the thought of Johann Gottfried Herder, the German Romantic philosopher who stressed the importance of history and language and culture to philosophy, as few before him had. Herder was one of the earliest thinkers to take the diversity of cultures not as a problem to be overcome but as a fact to be celebrated. Aesthetically he celebrated folk and popular culture against the Enlightenment thinkers’ presumption that they had found the standards everyone else should follow. And so in politics: different cultures have different ways of doing things, and this difference should be reflected in their laws and their ways of government. Herder advocated democracy for this reason, that a state would represent its own people; likewise he advocated that units of government be relatively small in order to be closer to the people they represented, a principle something like what later Catholic social thought would call “subsidiarity”. So Herder was deeply against the Napoleonic project of unifying and standardizing Europe, and a century later he would have been deeply suspicious of the European Union.

Herder’s theoretical ideas seemed dry to our undergraduate ears, compared to the more vivid details of land theft and popular culture. But they have remained with me. I struggle with them and there is a significant amount in them I reject. But accept them or reject them, they help us see the value in that cultural nationalism that otherwise seems so bewildering. Cultural nationalism has never left us, and maybe that does not have to be a bad thing. I have never known a time when Warwick Armstrong’s message was more timely.