On Doing Decolonial Education

I’ve recently been writing an essay for my MA in Higher Education Practice at UEA, and since it relates to a series of ongoing conversations, have decided to make it available here:

#RhodesMustFall Protesters at UCT. From The africanisation and decolonisation of higher education: Progress and challenges by Veli Mbele: https://www.pambazuka.org/pan-africanism/africanisation-and-decolonisation-higher-education-progress-and-challenges

The #RhodesMustFall movement in 2015 found its focus in the call for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its commanding place on the campus at the University of Cape Town (Kamanzi, 2015). As statues continue to fall around the globe, it is increasingly clear that this movement provided the spark that ignited a global wave of youth activism. I have written elsewhere about decolonial iconoclasm, what I want to consider here is another demand made by the movement – for ‘free, quality decolonial education’ (Gegana, 2016). Taking down statues is, relatively speaking, the easy bit. As student calls for ‘decolonisation’ echo around University campuses across the world, including at UEA where the Faculty of Arts and Humanities has recently launched a ‘Decolonising working party’ in response, initial meetings of which I have attended, how can we, as academics and educators, respond to these increasingly urgent student demands?

In the first instance, I feel like I need to provide an account of some of the ways in which my life has been implicated with these issues. Born in apartheid South Africa during the late 1970s, the early years of my life were shaped by travelling between Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and Soweto where my mother worked at a school for disabled children. When P.W. Botha declared a state of emergency, my parents felt that the country was on a path towards all out civil war, and with three white male children, they faced the prospect of enduring compulsory conscription of their children for a total of six years, into an army increasingly deployed within the country of which they were citizens. In 1986 my parents made the decision to leave the land where they had both been born, and applied for Irish citizenship, on the basis that my paternal grandfather, my only non-South African grandparent, had been born in County Kerry, a decade before the Easter rising.

Experiencing most of my education in England, like many immigrants from the former British Empire, I was struck by Britain’s lack of recognition for its Imperial past. I had to use opportunities outside the formal curriculum to discover accounts of the world in which I recognised myself and my family history. A school project on the Anglo-Boer war, in which three of my four great-grandfathers were combatants, was supplemented by reading novels by Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee and Alan Paton, and listening to the music of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and Lucky Dube. I remember watching the Free Nelson Mandela concert live on TV in 1988, Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, going to hear him speak at Trafalgar Square in 1996, as well as earnestly reading Long Walk to Freedom from cover to cover.

Studying Archaeology and Anthropology at university was a way for me, finally, to put Africa at the centre of my education. But the 1990s were a time when Anthropology especially, was grappling with its colonial history, and encountering Johannes Fabian’s (1983) Time and the Other, alongside work by George Marcus and James Clifford (1986), made it increasingly uncomfortable to pursue anthropological fieldwork in the manner expected by some who taught me. Despite completing a research masters, I backed away from a doctorate in Anthropology at Oxford. Finding myself recruited for a PhD in Canberra, at the height of Australia’s (Taylor, 2016) culture wars around Aboriginal history, reinforced my sense that I in particular, and perhaps Anthropology in general, couldn’t assume a right to intrude on people’s lives in other parts of the world in the name of research. What encounters with Aboriginal people in both Arnhem Land and Melbourne taught me was that their personal and family histories, like my own, had been deeply impacted by colonial histories, and in particular by missionary institutions through which the Australian government administered Aboriginal groups.

Back in the UK, I applied for and was appointed to a curatorship at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Responsible for non-European collections, I discovered the material counterpart to the colonial, and particular missionary pasts I had learned about in Australia and Botswana – items presented by returning missionaries. This provided the spark for a part-time PhD on the museum of the London Missionary Society, which I undertook while working for a time on a research project on Englishness and English collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. My overwhelming sense at the time, was that Salman Rushdie (1988) hit the nail squarely on the head when he had Mr S.S. ‘Whisky’ Sisodia’s stutter that ‘The trouble with the English is that their hiss-hiss-history happened overseas, so they do-do- don’t know what it means.’

My own experience of secondary education was deeply colonial in all sorts of ways, in large part through the exclusion of British colonial history. Since then, the school curriculum has increasingly been framed around an island story (Flett, 2013), dominated by encounters with despotic continental leaders, from the Pope to Napoleon and Hitler. It not only excludes the colonial pasts my ancestors were engaged in, from South Africa to India, North America, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, but includes next to nothing about pasts involving my Irish ancestors, or indeed about the other languages, Welsh and Gallic, that are indigenous to the island in question.

In contrast to the school curriculum, some have argued that by placing non-European lives at the centre of their concerns, Anthropology and Archaeology can be regarded as counter-hegemonic, even decolonising disciplines. But what this fails to recognise are the multiple ways in which as disciplines they were framed, and continue to be framed by the colonial worlds in which they have taken shape (Pels, 2018). One of the points that the ‘Born Frees’, the generation of students born after the fall of apartheid in 1994 most active in #RhodesMustFall, were keen to make was that neither apartheid nor colonialism are really over. The implication is that we need to grapple with the ways in which they continue to shape not only our lives, but also our modes of education and thinking.

Beyond Decolonising the Curriculum

Decolonise T-shirts. From Is decolonizing the new black? A collaboration among Left of Brown, Sisters of Resistance and Jenny Rodriguez: https://www.leftofbrown.com/single-post/2018/07/12/Is-decolonising-the-new-black

One fairly straightforward response that is increasingly installed as an operational answer to this demand is to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. In practice, what this frequently comes to mean is the diversification of reading lists, with the inclusion of more non- European voices and authors of colour, alongside potentially the inclusion of a few more non-Europe focused optional papers (Muldoon, 2019). While most reading lists could do with refreshing and the structure of degrees should be reframed in less Eurocentric terms, it seems unlikely that this approach alone will be sufficient in meeting the demand for ‘free,quality decolonial education’ (Feris, 2017), even if it does fulfil Fanon’s (1967, 27) definition of decolonisation in a straightforward sense, ‘as quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men.’

One issue that arises is the precise verb form used in relation to decolonisation. Is it important to be ‘decolonising’ the curriculum, to have a ‘decolonised’ curriculum, or to have a ‘decolonial’ curriculum? In some quarters there is definitely an impatience around the project of decolonisation, which manifests as a demand for a past-tense decolonised curriculum (Swain, 2019), but this potentially risks a superficial or hurried approach that potentially fails to recognise the magnitude of the task. ‘Decolonising’ on the other hand adopts the present participle to place the focus on the process itself, whether pursued through faculty working groups, student-led projects or administratively driven projects. There is a risk of a slip into the gerund, so that ‘decolonising’ becomes an activity to pursue in its own right, the fashionableness of which has prompted some (Rodriguez, 2018) to ask whether Decolonising has become the new black, at least in academic circles. But, I want to suggest that ‘free, quality decolonial education’, a slogan of the #FeesMustFall movement that followed #RhodesMustFall, means something slightly different – that education itself should become decolonial, and this, I think, is a more ambitious, if perhaps less obvious goal.

A. Khaym Ahmed (2017, 8) who completed at PhD on #RhodesMustFall at Columbia has suggested that the movement found its theoretical inspirations in Steve Biko’s (1978) ideas of black consciousness, Frantz Fanon’s (1967) decolonisation thesis and Kimberle Crenshaw’s (1991) intersectionality theory, and framed the struggle as a resistance to the dehumanisation of black people, which they argued was ‘a violence extracted only against black people by a system that privileges whiteness’. However, in the call for ‘decolonial’ education specifically, I think it is also possible to detect the influence of the Argentine scholar, Walter Mignolo, who with other Americanists has been central to developing ideas around ‘decoloniality’ in recent decadesMignolo has been a key reference point for Nick Shepherd, who until recently was based at the Centre for African Studies at UCT, so it is not hard to see how these ideas would find their way into South African student thinking.

Mignolo has been keen to draw a distinction between ‘decolonisation’ as a political state-level project, ‘Decoloniality’ as an epistemic project, and the more familiar theories associated with ’Postcolonialism’, suggesting that:

Briefly stated: post-colonialism and decoloniality have the history of Western colonialism in common. But while post-colonialism is based on the Indian and Palestinian experiences, they both are consequences of the enlightenment in 18th century Europe. While for us, the historical experiences are the colonization of America and the European Renaissance. That is what concerns the historical differences between the ‘post-’ and the ‘de-’.

Conceptually, the ‘post’ keeps you trapped in unipolar time conceptions. As far as for Western (since the Renaissance) cosmology “time” is one, singular and universal, you have no way out: you are trapped in a universal time that is owned by a particular civilization. Therefore, what comes after X has to be conceptualized as post-X. Decoloniality instead opens up to the multiple times of cultures and civilizations upon which Western Civilization imposes its conceptualization of time.

The ‘de-’indicates above all the need and the goal of the re-: epistemic reconstitutions, re-emergence, resurgence, re-existence. That is, neither new nor post.

(Hoffman, 2017)

Postcolonial education, then, would acknowledge and recognise colonial histories and the ways in which they have shaped contemporary conditions and systems of thought, without proposing any means of escape. But decolonial education would seek to challenge and unpick the assumptions and frameworks upon which colonial forms of knowledge have been built, primarily through re-introducing alternative perspectives, suppressed through the ‘coloniality of power’. This concept was developed by Anibal Quijano (2000) to describe forms of racial, political and social hierarchy and discrimination that have outlived formal colonialism, but which are nevertheless constitutive of modernity and the capitalist world system. Indeed, Mignolo (2011) has suggested that coloniality can be understood as the darker side of modernity, relying on a logic of extraction and accumulation by dispossession. Race emerges from this conceptualisation as a naturalisation of the colonial relations between Europeans and non-Europeans, assigning knowledge production to Europeans, while disqualifying other forms of knowledge through recategorising them as ‘tradition’. For Mignolo (2007), decolonial praxis involves delinking from dominant and universalizing Western epistemologies that centre narratives of European modernity, civilisation or development, through acts of epistemic disobedience. These should ideally attempt to conceive and create institutional organisations that are at the service of life, rather than putting people at the service of institutions (Mignolo and Walsh, 2018, 127).

Doing Education ‘Otherwise’

For Mignolo (2018, 113), decoloniality is not a concept or theory that can be readily assimilated into existing disciplinary conversations , but is rather a practice of ‘thinking and doing otherwise’. What would it mean, then, to think or do education ‘otherwise’? For #FeesMustFall protesters, it was clear that neoliberal models of marketised higher education were marked by an inherent coloniality – mining them and their future lives to support and sustain Universities as institutions. As a member of the very last cohort of students to receive a fee free higher education in the UK, I am intensely conscious of the ways in which the introduction of ever higher student fees has transformed student experiences of education. But doing education ‘otherwise’ doesn’t simply involve removing fees.

My thinking about how to do education ‘otherwise’ has been significantly shaped by two short books, one by the British anthropologist Tim Ingold, published in 2018, Anthropology and/as Education and the other published by the Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Ingold’s book developed from a series of lectures given in honour of John Dewey, so engages explicitly with the educational ideas of the American pragmatist philosopher, without citing Freire directly. Freire’s book also emerges out of dialogue, but in his case with Frantz Fanon’s argument in the Wretched of the Earth on the centrality of violence to decolonial liberation. A number of scholars have drawn attention to commonalities between Freire and Dewey’s ideas, as I propose with those of Ingold.

Freire criticises what he calls the “banking” concept of education, where students are understood as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, while Ingold attacks the widespread assumption that education is about the transmission of information. Ingold argues that instead, education is a practice of attending to the world, while Freire suggests that it involves cultivating a critical consciousness to reflect on reality. Ingold (2018, 4) draws on Dewey to develop a notion of education as ‘commoning’, a mutual participation in each others’s varied lives through attending to a mutual environment, in which senior and junior parties share a stake in the outcome – the absence of which marks training, rather than education. Education, Ingold (2018, 17) suggests ‘is what allows us humans to collectively make ourselves, each in his or her way’ – a process of human becoming.

For Freire, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is also marked by communication through dialogue, even dialectic, as a means of overcoming the dehumanisation that results from violence in both the oppressed and their oppressors. He suggests that:

Dehumanisation, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.

(Freire, 2017 [1970], 18)

For Freire (2017 [1970], 18), education can be a practice of liberation and freedom, but he suggests that the ‘great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed’ is to liberate themselves as well as their oppressors, since only the power that springs from weakness is strong enough to free both. Attempts to ’soften’ their power by the oppressor manifest as paternalism, a form of false generosity, which perpetuates injustice, since according to Freire, freedom is acquired by conquest, rather than by gift, and must be pursued constantly and responsibly. In contrast to Fanon’s ideas about the liberating effects of violence, Freire (2017 [1970], 30) suggests that it only an act of love can oppose the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors’ violence, and while now not unchallenged, I think one can see the impact of Freire’s ideas on Mandela’s approach to reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa.

Freire might agree with Fanon that decolonisation consists of the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men’, but in his case he wants to achieve this through transformation of both oppressors and oppressed into new kinds of person, since the immediate model of humanity for many of the oppressed remains becoming like their oppressors. Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed as a form of decolonial education attempts to overcome the dialectical contradiction between oppressors and oppressed through the humanisation of all.

While oriented in different directions, both Ingold and Freire agree that education is not something we do ‘to’ other people, but, as a process of ‘humanisation’ or ‘human becoming’, is something we do ’with’ them – in the process turning othering into what Ingold (2018, 66) calls ‘togethering’. This proceeds through response-ability and paying close attention to our shared world, and in Freire’s case to the nature of forms of oppression, not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which can be transformed through praxis; reflection and action upon the world.

The inherent danger for those of us located in Universities is the trap outlined by Freire, where awareness of the conditions of oppression, and our ongoing participation in them, leads to rationalisaion of guilt through paternalistic treatment that maintains the dependence of the oppressed. Decolonial education is clearly not something we can do ‘to’ others, but is something we must do ‘with’ them – paying attention together to the conditions of coloniality and oppression in our world, being prepared to be personally transformed by the process, and as a consequence working towards a world that enhances human flourishing – affirming life, growth and movement.

Both Ingold and Freire make a distinction between two types of education. For Freire (2017 [1970], 28) it is between systemic education, which can only be changed by political power, and educational projects carried out with the oppressed. For Ingold (2018, 37), the distinction is between education in the major key, the education of the school which immunises and provides security through knowledge, and education in the minor key, a practice of disarmament, enabling us to break out of the security of our defensive positions in the pursuit of wisdom. It is this latter form, Ingold suggests, that fulfils the etymological meaning of education as ex-ducere – leading out. Anxious, unsettling and inquisitive, education in the minor key is an act of care, a gift, that nevertheless exposes us all to significant risk.

While Ingold’s book in part emerges as a reaction to and critique of the contemporary University – following the campaign at Aberdeen ‘Reclaiming our University’ in which he played a prominent part – it is striking that the book finds its focus in a final chapter on ‘Anthropology, Art and the University’. Ingold (2018, 58) argues for Anthropology (but also Art) as a form of Education, defined as ‘a generous, open-ended, comparative and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and potentials of human life in the one world we all inhabit.’ What is striking, however, is that he suggests that this is true whether considering anthropology in the classroom or in the field – both involve close attention to the world in co-respondence with others. 

Personally, I have grappled with doing research in Africa in the wake of challenges such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (2012 [1999]) Decolonizing Methodologies, which suggested that ‘from the vantage point of the colonised… the term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism’. But recognising time spent with others in Africa as a significant element in my decolonial education has felt transformative. Over the past five years, as the consequences of #RhodesMustFall have unfolded globally, I have been involved in setting up what Freire might call an educational project – Recollecting the Missionary Road – with colleagues at Sol Plaatje University, established in 2014 in South Africa’s Northern Cape.

Through field schools at the Moffat Mission in Kuruman, a London Missionary Society station established in independent African territory in 1824, and subsequently colonised, we have been attending together, to the landscape as a means of understanding how the processes of oppression involved in coloniality transformed coloniser and the colonised alike. The conditions of a temporarily constituted field school, like the transient Bogwera and Bogale initiation schools, have been ideal ‘other’ places in which to pursue education in the minor key – attending together to the circumstances under which South Africa was simultaneously racialised and tribalised through missionary, colonial and apartheid projects.

The challenge ahead for decolonial education, as I see it, involves translating experiments in decolonial education onto University campuses in both South Africa and the UK. Will it be possible to do decolonial education ‘otherwise’ in the more formal and hierarchical institutional settings of the institution?


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