Opinionista Muhammad Nakhooda 9 May 2017

Decolonised curriculum: a matter of mindfulness

Humankind’s historical behaviour is to colonise; thus we need to clarify what part of colonialism is in conflict with our judgements.

As a lecturer in the Biological Sciences, I am aware that, despite the subject matter being conceptualised and delivered as such, many students in my university classroom maintain their suspicion of Evolution by Natural Selection. These students argue that the theory is no truer than any tale that indigenous knowledge provides to explain the existence of the myriad life forms on earth. While on one hand this is unsettling, especially coming from students of science, it does present evidence that indigenous knowledge remains firmly embedded in students’ minds, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This can be seen as an example of defiance against “colonial” knowledge. But do these students oppose evolution because the theory originates from colonials, or do they oppose it because they hold stronger beliefs in indigenous knowledge? In such cases, which do we favour when dealing with a decolonised curriculum, and how can we sort and teach fact from fiction if we want to decolonise, but remain progressive and true, in the spirit of education in general, and science in particular?

The questions and discussions around “decolonisation” have been trending in recent months. The discussions around this topic, particularly in the current South African context are often, understandably, emotionally-driven. The reality is that most have not paused to contemplate the topic or take a position any firmer than the mere moral high-ground. The chant of “Colonialism Must Fall” seems to permeate this discourse, but very few actually understand what this stands for. The topic has extended to decolonising education, but experts are yet to speak in a collective voice.

In order to reach a position in the most rational and critical way possible, we should firstly rid our approach of emotion and blame, and take a lucid stance to assess the available facts. One useful approach would be to frame the discourse in a natural and historical context. The discourse should differentiate between, at the very least, politics, knowledge, innovation and technology. In terms of colonial hegemony, what should we be opposed to?

To take the argument further, an historical perspective is useful. As far as the animal kingdom is concerned, humans as a species are the ultimate colonists. In order to ensure the longevity of our species and to satisfy our curiosity, humans have consistently ventured out of their homelands in search of food and resources. An imaginary group of Neanderthals would today be furiously stamping their feet, protesting the fact that homo sapiens colonists from a place on earth that we’ve agreed to call “Africa”, stormed into their lands, killed off their males and bred out their females, to completely annihilate them as a species, leaving today only scant archaeological traces and some incorporated DNA in our own bodies, as evidence of their existence.

Thus, out of Africa, modern man had begun the collective quest to colonise the planet. History attests to the many empires, kingdoms and civilisations that have risen and fallen since, each conquering and colonising the next in a never-ending cycle of dominance. Some groups of people did this as a show of military strength, religions did it to spread an ideology, empires did it to expand their rule, governments and corporations did it in a quest to acquire resources and wealth, and so it goes. All the while, new lands were either discovered or later acquired through sometimes questionable means from earlier colonists. This is humankind’s history, and thus we need to clarify what part of colonialism is in conflict with our judgements.

The manner in which many countries were colonised, physically, economically and emotionally enslaving the earlier population through superior technology, plundering resources, and spreading an ideology of superiority will always remain an unsightly scar in the fabric of human history. It is one that should definitely be rectified through education, restoration of justice, and mitigation of inequality to uplift the oppressed by those who benefited from the unjust and unequal system, and through reversing the emotional damage caused by decades of subjugation. This resonates very strongly in the South African context, and is the central unchallenged tenet of the decolonisation discourse.

That the colonial powers after the 14th and 15th century BCE Renaissance was European is indubium facto. However, it needs to be remembered that the body of knowledge at and subsequent to the Renaissance was cumulative. Philosophy was built upon by that of the earlier Greeks, mathematics by that of the Arabs and Indians, architecture from those of the Greeks and Romans, gunpowder from the Chinese, and so on. Notwithstanding the political ideology of colonialism, the accumulated knowledge then and now is a natural product of human curiosity, thinking and labour. It does not belong to any group of people, and thus has been inherited and distributed throughout the world, albeit sometimes through a hegemonic version of colonialism. This is to say that when Isaac Newton developed his Law of Gravitation, or when Robert Hooke peered into his microscope to discover the cell, or when Charles Darwin realised the ancestry and link among species, we can be sure that none of these British men sought to enslave people using this knowledge. It may have been their countrymen and governments who were malevolent colonists, but the knowledge of humankind cannot be “colonial”. It is the misuse of humankind’s beneficial, neutral knowledge that we can take objection to. For example, the rich world of literature can be selectively engineered as a powerful vehicle of propaganda, demonising or suppressing one race to the advantage and elevation of another. Developments in the fields of biology or chemistry by earnest, sincere scientists can be used to develop technologies that subjugate countries lacking in that knowledge and technology. This is the political layer that inexorably paints the knowledge of those living in colonial lands with a tainted brush. A distinction should be made between knowledge, in its pure form, that happens to be introduced by colonial powers, and political ideologies that accompany them.

When extended to education in a post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa then, what does a decolonised curriculum entail? Surely the first aim would be to strip the curriculum of propaganda and all notions of European/British/Colonial grandeur at the expense of indigenous knowledge and dignity. We can agree that this is inarguable, and the supposedly superior ideologies of colonial powers that permeate higher education should be urgently ameliorated to reflect one that respects the dignity, rights, knowledge and contributions of all humankind. When it relates to science and technology, however, the decolonisation space appears murkier, and experts have trod carefully. The whole value of science lies in the search for, and validation of truths in the universe. Is it possible then, to decolonise truths? Should indigenous knowledge, if considered myth by scientific measure, be in a curriculum at all? Or should indigenous knowledge be incorporated in the curriculum because it presents an alternate view to colonial knowledge? Is science even considered “colonised knowledge”?

One approach to amalgamating indigenous and “colonial” knowledge systems in a comprehensive and holistic scientific curriculum would be to subject indigenous knowledge to scientific verification. Critics may view this as holding indigenous knowledge systems accountable and measurable against the scientific method. However, the scientific method is universally accepted as a means of indiscriminately verifying knowledge. This process of investigating truths in indigenous knowledge systems has been on-going for a few years to date. In research fields such as ethnobotany, a significant number of plant species used for traditional healing have been scientifically proven to contain elevated concentrations of metabolites that have therapeutic value. Herein lays the value of indigenous knowledge. Many of these metabolites have since been implemented in modern treatment applications. Such discoveries are and should be incorporated into the curriculum, to illustrate the value and contribution of indigenous knowledge, and to dispel the hitherto dominance of colonial knowledge. The objective should be to accumulate and amalgamate knowledge systems, to ultimately enhance thought and world views.

One would find difficulty sitting at a computer in a lit room, surrounded by the products of the minds of Boyle, Dalton, Tesla, Franklin, Turing and Newton, while simultaneously criticising colonial knowledge, when in fact it is the hegemonic colonial ideology that should be the focus of our contention. This said, one has to wonder about the implications and influence of human knowledge, as we collectively race to colonise planets other than our own. What will we learn, what will we realise when we get there, or will we as a species, continue to be insensitive colonisers? DM