The Portrayal of the Institution of Education in Abraham's Promise

Valerie Braman, Class of 2000.5, English 119, Brown University

Philip Jeyaretnam presents Abraham, a character who has made his life's work in teaching, in this novel set in postcolonial Singapore. Necessarily, then, the issue of education as it affects not only Abraham's professional life, but also as it figures into his view of his country and society, and by extension, into the larger themes of the novel, figures prominently in this text. Jeyaretnam's chapters highlight the ways in which the role of the teacher intersects with those of power and the propagation of control. As previously suggested in writings on this novel, the struggles and developments that Abraham makes as an individual and a teacher are compared to those same processes in the development of the postcolonial identity and function. (link to my Jeyaretnam paper) However, it is also useful to focus on the ways in which the institution of education in this context is tied to the exercise of power and the propagation of control on the part of prevailing political and social forces.

Abraham's explanation of the merits of studying Latin to his new student are reminiscent of Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin's claim that education serves as "a massive cannon in the artillery of empire" (425). Indeed, Abraham justifies the study of Latin as one connected fundamentally to war and the conquering of nations and peoples as he explains, "Latin is a wonderful language, Like English, it is the language of conquerors. And like English, it has been the vehicle for the spread of the Gospel" (13). As this lesson continues, the significant role of language and education in terms of the colonization of territories becomes evident. Clear as well is the comparison between the situation in Singapore and that of ancient Roman conquests. The education of the colonized peoples in the language of the conqueror implies indoctrination in the culture and customs of the conqueror that includes but is not limited to religion, as Abraham points out in this passage. Abraham himself suggests that educational institutions and practices can be, and have historically been, designed to serve the interests of colonialism.

Abraham's own words as he ponders the challenges he faces in teaching the classics (in other words, the English and Western classics, as determined by colonial authorities) to his ethnically and linguistically diverse class of students in Singapore once again point to the ways in which education and curricula have been used to reinforce the values and rule of colonial interests.

The central puzzle was to motivate a student who might speak Hokkien, Tamil or Malay at home. English was already a foreign language, and Latin twice foreign. The old answer, self-fulfilling so long as the Empire endured, that Shakespeare and Virgil were the necessary accoutrements of the civilised man, and civilised men obtained the best jobs, crumbled with each step towards Independence. (96)

Again, we see the recurring theme of the attempt on the part of colonial authorities to instill a belief in their colonial subjects that the only path to financial and social success was the path set forth by Western culture. Further, we see that education in terms of the English canon of literature comprised the bulk of the stones in this path. Abraham already believes the idea that English and Latin are the languages of power and civilization. His dilemma involves the question of how these educational values, imposed upon him by Western educators, can be expressed clearly or effectively to the new type of society created by the postcolonial situation in Singapore. Political circumstances and developments are inextricably linked to the task and methods of educating students of colonial and postcolonial territories; these circumstances and developments continue to center around the maintenance of the primacy of Western colonizing thought and practice.

This primacy of all intellectual and literary (and therefore, cultural, and philosophical) things Western in continued even when Abraham seems to think that he is being revolutionary in his teaching techniques. He cites his own refusal to use traditional methods of teaching in his classroom, suggesting that his individual attention to his students' needs improved their desire and ability to learn. Abraham continues,

Those boys were something special; they began to use the literature they studied to interpret the world around them. Hamlet, . . . was to them a study in the process of decolonisation. The ordinary Singaporean was like Hamlet, his heritage despoiled by the interloping colonising Claudius. How then to act? Vengeance or forgiveness> The Aeneid came to stand for all the problems of an island-state and the quest for nationhood, suggesting how one small city could in the end become the focus of a great empire. What days those were when even literature seemed to speak to the spirit of the age!

The fact that Abraham uses "the tools of the master" (to borrow a phrase from Audre Lorde) problematizes his claims to innovation and a radical departure from traditional, colonial influences in his classroom. Abraham remains, therefore, still within the master's power. The literature that he uses to draw parallels to decolonization and the development of a national consciousness are the very staples of Western literature that the colonizing powers put into his curriculum in the first place. There is something less than satisfying about challenging the authority of the British Empire using one of the most well-known markers of its cultural excellence and superiority, namely, a Shakespearean text. Perhaps Abraham's revolutionary teaching strategies would seem more truly defiant if he were using texts written by Singaporean authors to study the political and social developments of his country, as opposed to the texts which were and continued to be concerned with building and maintaining empire. I make this point in light of the fact that Abraham is careful to say that he wishes to keep sight of "the authors' original concerns," apparently, lest he appear too subversive in his interpretive strategies. One who affords to the classics the kind of status that Abraham apparently does would perhaps feel more at ease delving into the realm of the subversive with literature written by the colonized, where an interpretation of subversion would seem more expected and appropriate to the "original concerns" of the authors. Given the reverence that Abraham has for the classic texts to which he refers in this passage, I have difficulty believing that he could apply a significant degree of subversiveness in his interpretations and teaching of them.

The links between the educational institutions and those designed for governmental control and the maintenance of power are perhaps nowhere as explicit as in the pages detailing the loss of Abraham's teaching license and his efforts to regain it. Here, it is because Abraham is involved in his local teachers' union and writes articles of a political nature in this organization's newsletter that his principal deems him a "disruptive influence," exhibiting "Conduct unbecoming to a teacher" (117). This fact points to the links between government and education in Singapore, allowing the reader to understand that the control of the means and instruments of education was considered essential to the government's sense of strength. If teachers support, or at least do not question the political powers, then their students will be less likely to do this, as well. Although Abraham teaches in a mission school which he explains is not under the same kind of direct governmental control as the public schools (117), his actions are still considered to be a threat to both sets of institutions. Therefore, the degree of government control of this mission school and its employees appears as strong as it might be in the public schools Abraham mentions.

Abraham's appearance before the Board of Governors at times resembles a show trial in a totalitarian situation: the charges against him are not what they were originally supposed to be; a witness fails to show up; another witness lies about his conversation with Abraham and the events on the day in question. This, too, makes the sometimes hidden links between educational and political institutions and the maintenance of power a bit more explicit for both this character and the reader. Telling, as well, is the scene in which the agents from Internal Security offer Abraham his teaching license back in exchange for falsified testimony against his former friend and colleague, Krishna. "Now, please remember that if you cooperate this will show that you have regained the social responsibility that a teacher must have," explains one of the mysterious men. The relationship between social and educational responsibility strongly resembles the relationship of social and political control. Again, Jeyaretnam demonstrates that schools teach their students not only facts about geography and grammar, but also cultural and social values that may be manipulated and designed to create generations of citizens who are sympathetic to the needs and goals of the particular powers that be. In these ways, Abraham's Promise demonstrates the manner in which the institutions and programs of education are implemented by colonial authorities in order to support their control of the colonial subject, and the ways in which these practices last far into the period of post-colonialism.


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, Eds. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Jeyaretnam, Philip. Abraham's Promise. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1995.

Education as a Means of (Post) Colonial Control in the Literature of Zimbabwe and Singapore: A Theoretical and Literary Analysis

Postcolonial OV discourseov [Singapore] Philip Jeyaretnam