Prof. Ian Davies is based in the Department of Education at the University of York. He is the leader of the Centre for Research on Education and Social Justice and the director of the Graduate School for Education. In this post, Ian explores the concept of the “nation state” and the wider implications of this in relation to globalization, education and social justice.



The themes and issues associated with the three words used in the title to this blog post are extraordinarily significant. A team of people from around the world have recently been exploring these matters and Palgrave Macmillan has in 2016 published a book under that title. The team comprised: Maria Auxiliadora Schmidt (Brazil). Alan Sears and Carla Peck (Canada), Eric King Man Chong (Hong Kong), Alistair Ross and Ian Davies (UK) and Terrie Epstein and Debbie Sonu (USA).

One of the key questions we explore in that book concerns the ways in which we teach and learn about the nation state. Across our case study chapters we acknowledge what at times seems to be the monolithic forces of globalization but which on closer inspection seem to reveal an incredible diversity. Across the world we are becoming more similar and at the same time more different. The Council of Europe’s slogan ‘all the same; all different’ is not a contradiction. Context matters. It is unlikely that the forces of globalization associated with technology, economics and the movement of goods and people are to be seen in relation to a simplistic centre-periphery model. Rather our real – and to use the idea put forward by Benedict Anderson in his seminal 1991 publication – ‘imagined’ communities are varied.

Nation states are, of course, distinct units. But there is a great deal of diversity within each nation state. Linda Colley’s well known book ‘Britons: forging the nation’ is deliberately titled in an ambiguous manner (Colley, 1992). Colley gives us in this title the striking image of a blacksmith forging the nation on the anvil of war. But she also makes us realise that, in some ways at least, Britain is (like other nation states) a forgery. It is a collection of the bits that have been stuck together and around which myths are woven.

Within nation states there is huge variation. Some of that is to do with climate or economics and some of it is to do with people. Kymlicka’s work draws attention to different groups such as national minorities, immigrant minorities and indigenous peoples. Much of the process that has led to the inclusion of those peoples within a nation state is related strongly to current or past colonialism. The struggle for social justice through education is related to the classic questions posed by the political scientist Dahl, ‘how wide is the pluralist spectrum and who decides on that degree of breadth?’

The ways then in which educators decide to proceed is to some extent contextualized and determined by overarching and specific historical and contemporary forces. But there are broad choices which may be made in education. In a 2014 keynote address to a conference sponsored by the Association for Canadian Studies, Peter Seixas (2014) set out the distinction between what he called ‘celebratory heritage and critical history’ (p. 14, emphasis in the original). We can see particular versions of the past and present being taught to students depending on what could be described as political purpose. These narratives emerge from different things. What is taught may be a reaction to a critical moment (e.g., the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York; the 2005 attacks in London; the 2015 attacks in Paris). There may be long running emphases on patriotism and nationalism in disagreements about textbooks (Japanese accounts of the 1930s and 1940s compared with Chinese versions; and French, German and British accounts of the same period are good examples of these tensions). There may be decisions being taken (e.g. about the nature of a united Europe) that are informed by educators and in which those educators are themselves being influenced.

When wrestling with the question of how to teach about the nation state we need to maintain our commitment to finding out and teaching the truth, respecting knowledge and ensuring that a critical approach is clearly in evidence during the identification of that knowledge.