EDUCATION AND EMPIRE: Colonial Universities in Mexico, India and the United States


This article reviews the educational policies of Spain and England in their most emblematic colonies, Mexico and India, respectively, and compares them to those of the United States.  Mexico and India share one important historical feature: both were colonies in which the native population greatly outnumbered European colonists and in which native cooperation was crucial to the colonial enterprise.  In both cases, the European powers felt compelled to educate members of the native elites to conduct the business of empire for them. In contrast, the United States was a “white colony,” in which Europeans displaced the local populations, which were relatively small and consisted mostly of bands and tribes, as opposed to the states and empires found in Mexico and India.  Thus, Europeans carried out the work of the colonies themselves or with the help of slaves imported from Africa, instead of relying on the indigenous population.  After gaining independence from England, the United States developed an empire of its own, acquiring an immense amount of territory, mostly from the old Spanish Empire, which had controlled roughly half of the present land mass of the continental United States.  In addition, the United States obtained sovereignty over other strategically important territories such as Alaska, Hawaii and various Pacific islands, and it unofficially controlled much of Latin America, which came to be considered its “backyard.”  This enormous expansion of its territory and areas of influence transformed the United States into a world power and created new colonial populations, such as Native Alaskans, Native Hawaiians and Hispanics.  The United States has always been reluctant to see itself as an empire, a political construct seemingly in conflict with its self-image as a defender of freedom.  After all, the country is a democracy that established itself in opposition, first to the old British Empire, and then, to the old Spanish Empire, and its national myths glorify this opposition.  Many Americans consider colonial conquest incompatible with the values of self-rule and self-representation that underpin the American republic.  Thus, the country has a tendency to ignore its own record of colonial acquisition.  This article reviews some key moments in the history of universities in the United States, with a view toward understanding the connection between education and empire.  At present, the number of non-white people in the United States is increasing at such speed that some states are already majority-minority, that is, they have more people of color than whites, and the entire country is expected to become majority-minority in a few decades.  Acknowledging the colonial history that transformed the country into a multicultural superpower would help revitalize its democratic ideals and create a higher level of inclusiveness, without which it will be difficult for its higher education system to meet the complex needs of the 21st century. 

Publication date: 
July 1, 2014
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)
EDUCATION AND EMPIRE: Colonial Universities in Mexico, India and the United States by Cristina González and Funie Hsu CSHE.7.14 (July 2014)