Colonialism in higher education
By: Sally Musa
“[Colonialism] turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.” These words, written half a century ago by philosopher Frantz Fanon, are still relevant today. Colonialism is the vestige of European imperialism that imposes unbalanced power structures that favour colonists over other groups. As university students, our most common and intimate relationship with colonization is through our education. University education, as well as ideas of what constitutes higher education, has become a gear in the machinations of colonial practices.
We regularly witness colonialism in the content of our courses, in the manner and the setting in which courses are taught. At McMaster, a quick glance at the undergraduate calendar for programs like Art History, English or Sociology shows that only about 25% of those courses are concerned with non-European subjects. General or introductory courses are almost completely European in subject matter. Areas of study including the Humanities, Social Sciences and Business are used to critically examine the human condition. Through the omission of non-European groups, realities of racialized and marginalized groups have been shelved. To decolonize education would be to redefine what it means to be human.
The manner of discussion surrounding non-European people, ideas, and history is problematic. The “objective” discourse of these groups of people can reduce those very people to objects. Education systems place a specific group as dominant and normative, and all other groups become just that – the “other.”
The setting in most university classes can reaffirm the colonial foundations suspected of being taught. University classes are often structured to have a single teacher, with the complete lexicon of knowledge, surrounded by learners. The structure in itself reaffirms power hegemonies similar to that of a colonizing power towards a colony. The roles in the classroom are not interchangeable, and when a learner is unable to assume the role of a teacher it reduces classroom experiences to a single narrative. This narrowed view can diminishes a learner’s capacity for critical approaches to education.
The questions remains: how do we decolonize education? To clarify, decolonization here does not refer to the integration of different communities, whether African, Asian, Indigenous, etc. The tolerance of colonized people within a colonial system appears as progress, but it is merely a step in a circular path. Rather, decolonization involves shifting from a culture of denial to the creation of space for new philosophies and systems of knowledge. This can alter cultural perception and power relations in material ways. In Canada, the call for indigenous knowledge in education has been met with the establishment of Aboriginal Focus Schools. This school teaches skills and knowledge within the context of aboriginal cultural values.
I’ve heard many people use the phrases “decolonize your mind” or “decolonize your thoughts” and although I agree with the sentiment, it is only the first step. Recognizing the structure and implications of colonization on our education is a massive hurdle, but it is not the end of the path. To once again quote Frantz Fanon, “no phraseology can be a substitute for reality.” Decolonization is not a metaphor used for social justice or awareness. It is a tangible goal.
Since colonialism is foundational in institutions of higher education, it will persist if met with indifference. Thus, decolonization needs to be engaged directly and consciously. To combat colonialism in higher education, the voices of all groups must be brought into the discussion of course curricula and instruction. McMaster currently has programming in Indigenous Studies, Jewish Studies, Asian Studies and most recently, African and African Diaspora Studies. Having personally witnessed the growth of the African and African Diaspora Studies Program, I have an appreciation for the deliberate establishment of cornerstone programs. These areas of study address the longstanding gaps within university programming. Educational reform can only be the result of analysis, problem solving and discussion – so let’s continue the conversation.
This article was first published in Incite Magazine