Reading: Decolonising the Curriculum

In recent years a number of protests and movements around the world have drawn renewed attention to the idea of decolonising the university curriculum. In South Africa, protests have coalesced around a number of issues including representations of divisive colonial figures like Cecil Rhodes on University Campuses, as well as more systemic issues. Similar protests have taken place in the southern United States, and also to a lesser degree in the United Kingdom. Clearly to be effective this decolonisation must go beyond just challenging the celebration of divisive histories, and must extend into the classroom and curriculums that are being taught.

In a 2016 paper, Lesley le Grange of South Africa’s Stellenbosch University offers some ideas for how this might occur. While he writes in the very specific context of the South African university system with its history of colonialism and apartheid and it’s diverse ethnic and cultural makeup there is much which might be adopted and adapted into other systems. Le Grange opens by discussing the South African education system, particularly highlighting the very low retention rates of black students. He suggests these retention rates are linked not only to inadequacies in public schools (a widely recognised issue) but also to the environment of the university itself.. In his paper Le Grange sets out to discuss three areas. First what is meant by decolonisation and why the need to decolonise, secondly what is normally meant by curriculum and alternative ways of understanding this term, and finally, he discusses the actual process of decolonisation.

Le Grange opens by attempting to define what is meant by decolonisation by reviewing a number of models for this, mostly informed by post-colonial theory. These all essentially set out a gradual process of awakening, and mounting activism, challenging the entrenched priorities and inequalities inherited from the colonial era. Le Grange writes that ‘decolonisation is a necessary response to first and second generation colonialism, neo-colonialism and the recent (re)ascendency of neoliberalism’ and provides examples of how each of these stages have undermined indigenous culture and knowledge. While he is clearly writing in a very post-colonial context which might not be directly transferable to the United Kingdom, his statement is intriguing to me in it’s very direct connection between the legacy of colonialism and rise of global neoliberal capitalism. Le Grange is however also realistic about the challenges of the decolonisation, and critiques the suggestion inherent in this term of going backwards to a previous state, something he points out is neither desirable nor possible. Drawing on examples from New Zealand and Canada, he also notes that even relatively successful programs of decolonisation can have their pitfalls and weak points.

In the next section, le Grange turns to a discussion of curriculum. He critiques the lack of reflection on university curriculums (in comparison to say school level curriculums) and calls for a move away from a Taylorist, outcomes focused university curriculum. He offers a few alternative definitions and forms, including Ted Aoki’s call for teachers to consider the curriculum not just as a plan but as something which is lived by students. He also delves into the Latin origins of the term curriculum, from currere, meaning to run, and reflects on various interpretations of this including those by William Pinar, and later by Jason Wallin who propose multiple interpretations stemming from this adjective. Running (pun unintended) through this section is a sense of discontent with the rather linear and static way that curriculum is usually understood in higher education, and its inherent lack of flexibility or ability to incorporate the experiences and ideas of different students.

In the final section le Grange discusses approaches to actively decolonising the curriculum. Citing himself in the third person (something which even in academia I find slightly bizarre) le Grange argues an important starting point might be a move away from a Descartesian emphasis on knowledge and the individual and towards a more encompassing celebration of our connections to others and to the world. He writes that ‘A decolonised curriculum is evidenced by a shift in subjectivity from the arrogant ‘I’ (of Western individualism) to the humble ‘I’ – to the ‘I’ that is embedded, embodied, extended and enacted.’ From here he goes on to a critique of the foundations of many western disciplines, which he quotes Odora-Hoppers and Richards describing as ‘distant, antiseptic and removed from the experiences of the lived world [that] comes from recognising the pain, anger and anguish being experienced in society’. Le Grange suggests that as part of the proccess of decolonisation we may need to create new spaces that allow other modes of knowledge to co-exist alongside the western binary of empirical knowledge verification/falsification.

Le Grange is writing in a highly specific context, but his thoughts on how South African universities might decolonise are intriguing and clearly encourage thought about the extent to which practices in universities in the former colonising countries (like the United Kingdom) echo those in the former colonies. Many post-colonial thinkers, not least Stuart Hall, have reflected on the close binaries that exist between centre and periphery, coloniser and colonised. The impetus might be much clearer and more urgent in post-colonial countries to decolonise their higher education systems, which were so often clearly products and parts of colonialism. But when one considers that many older British universities also existed in a close symbiosis with empire, it is intriguing to ponder what a very direct emulating le Grange’s suggestions to the university system in the United Kingdom might look like.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer.

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