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Decolonising the curriculum, to what end?


Chris Desmond is the director of the Centre for Liberation Studies, co-director of the UKRI GCRF Accelerating Achievement for Africa’s Adolescents Hub and a research associate at Brigham and Women's Hospital (Boston) and the Centre for Rural Health (UKZN). He holds a PhD from the LSE and a Masters from UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

Decolonising the curricula is to education what not being dead is to a good life: a prerequisite, but not a goal in itself.

Steve Biko argued that you should define yourself in terms of what you are, never in terms of what you are not, hence black people should never refer to themselves as “non-white”. In other words, what you are independently, not what you are relative to something else.

The decolonising endeavour is, by definition, defining itself and its goal in terms of what it wants to move from, not where it wants to move to. We are setting the bar rather low if we are to be content with anything other than colonised. Besides, a relative goal is forever defined by that which it is relative to, so far from taking control, it leaves control where it is.

The curricula throughout our education system are in dire need of transformation. Learners and students too often do not see themselves in the curricula, making education an alienating rather than liberating experience. But in our efforts to transform we need to define our goals in terms of what we want, not just in terms of what we do not want. One can easily imagine decolonised curricula which continue to alienate.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are advising someone on how to lead a good life. They tell you that they know. The secret to a good life is not to be dead. Certainly, not being dead is a requirement, but alive you still have to choose a path. Decolonising the curricula is to education what not being dead is to a good life: a prerequisite, but not a goal in itself.

Many of those engaged in the decolonising movement appreciate that decolonising is a means and not an end. But their awareness is too often lost in public debates and coverage. The misunderstanding of decolonisation as an end in itself may be avoided if we focus on the question of why we want to decolonise. What is the end to which decolonisation is a means? What goals should our education system pursue? The goal of education should define what constitutes an appropriate curriculum.

A goal I would support would be education which is liberating and which prepares learners and students to contribute to the development of our country and beyond. Sounds both reasonable and positive. If we could agree on such a goal we could then ask what curriculum would best achieve this goal? A colonised curriculum alienates and so cannot liberate, so would be off the table. But we would have to go further than taking options away, we would have to identify or develop an option which would achieve our goal. In doing so we would allow the goal to define the curriculum.

A focus on goals highlights the need for transformation of all levels of education. “Bantu Education” had clear goals, for every level and every subject. It aimed to teach black South Africans their place in society and provide enough knowledge and skills to support the apartheid state, but not too much or too many to endanger it (thankfully it failed, but not without doing damage in the process).

The goals of our current education system are not so clear.

A focus on goals also highlights the need for transformation in all subjects. That many of those in mathematics and sciences think their subjects are not appropriate candidates for decolonisation shows just how prone to misunderstanding the decolonisation framing is. What are the goals of maths and science education in South Africa? If the goals include contributing to development, including addressing the needs of those who are suffering in poverty, then perhaps certain topics need to be emphasised more than others. This to ensure that those who receive this education are well equipped to contribute in the best possible ways.

Finally, a focus on goals can help frame the discussion of the extent to which decolonising requires the prioritising of African scholars. Appropriate goals will naturally lead to the inclusion of African scholars. African scholars, and indeed scholars from other developing countries, are likely to be grappling with similar issues and are therefore likely to have something relevant to say.

Moreover, if the goals included attention to the role of education as a liberating rather than an alienating process, there would again be a necessary inclusion of African scholars. Westerns scholars would be crowded out rather than thrown out. Those that remain would remain because their contribution best serves our purpose. Besides, as the Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen argued some years ago, we should be careful what knowledge we give away, in our case to the coloniser. Mathematics, physics and medicine, among other things, are often inappropriately labelled “Western”. If you track the roots of these disciplines and the histories of those who developed the ideas, they stretch well beyond the West. The very foundations of mathematics, for example, include massive contributions from Arab, Indian and African scholars. To give these disciplines to the West is to buy into a racist narrative of their origins and ownership.

The goals of our education system are hindered by colonised curricula. But in removing this barrier, let us not lose sight of the importance of setting goals. It will be through defining and pursuing our education goals that we will be able to transform our curricula, our education system and our country. DM


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