Gellner on the Meaning of Nation

Ernest Gellner (1925–95) was, at the time of his death, a research professor at the Central European University in Prague. His was one of the foremost theorists of modern nationalism. Here, he speaks of the role of education as perhaps the most critical institutions of the modern nation:

Gellner explains the social logic of nationalism, and the role of the education system in imposing the order of cultural homogeneity:

Nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones … It follows that a territorial political unit can only become ethnically homogenous … if it either kills, or expels, or assimilates all non-nationals.

Discussion of the state may begin with Max Weber’s celebrated definition of it, as that agency within society which possesses the monopoly of legitimate violence … The monopoly of legitimate education is now more important, more central, than is the monopoly of legitimate violence …

[N]ationalism is, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases the totality, of the population. It means … generalized diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of reasonably precise bureaucratic and technical communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomized individuals. held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves …

Contrary to popular and even scholarly belief, nationalism does not have any very deep roots in the human psyche. The human psyche … generates many surface possibilities. Nationalism, the organization of human groups into large, centrally educated, culturally homogeneous units, is but one of these … The roots of nationalism [are] in the distinctive structural requirements of industrial society … Universal literacy and a high level of numerical, technical and general sophistication are among its functional prerequisites. Its members are and must be mobile, and ready to shift from one activity to another, and must possess that generic training which enables them to follow manuals and instructions of a new activity or occupation. In the course of their work they must constantly communicate with a large number of other men, with whom they frequently have had no previous association, and with whom communication must consequently be explicit, rather than relying on context. They must also be able to communicate by means of written, impersonal, context-free, to-whom-it-may-concern type messages. Hence these communications must be in the same shared and standardized linguistic medium and script. The education system which guarantees this social achievement becomes large and is indispensable … The employability, dignity, security and self-respect of individuals, typically … hinges on their education; and the limits of the culture within which they were educated are also the limits of the world within which they can, morally and professionally, breathe … [A] school-transmitted culture, not a folk-transmitted one, alone confers his useability and self-respect on industrial man …

Exo-socialization, education proper, is now the virtually universal norm … [T]hough only the state can sustain so large a burden, only the state is also strong enough to control so important and crucial a function. [E]ven in countries in which important parts of the educational machine are in private hands or those of religious organizations, the state does take over quality control in this most important of industries, the manufacture of viable and useable human beings.


Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press. pp. 1–2, 3, 34, 57, 34–35, 36, 37, 38. || Amazon || WorldCat


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