Decolonising education in South Africa
He who is reluctant to recognise me opposes me - Frantz Fanon Reflecting on the notion of decolonisation.
In today’s world, the well-educated person is not simply the one who has acquired knowledge or skills, but the one who possesses the capacity to interrogate that knowledge. After all, the acquisition of knowledge is never a neutral process; knowledge is generated by particular groups in society for particular purposes. Without understanding the sources of the knowledge that we acquire, or whose interests that knowledge serves, we risk becoming pawns to tyrants.
‘A functioning, robust democracy’, stated Chinua Achebe in an interview with Monitor Africa correspondent Scott Baldauf, ‘requires a healthy, educated, participatory followership, and an educated, morally grounded leadership.’ The development of both of these relies on an education system fit for that purpose, an educational programme that requires critical engagement with knowledge.
The demand for decolonising education then is essentially a demand for critical literacy, where knowledge is presented as a social construct that is intimately linked with norms and values. This would necessitate that the focus of educational activity not be on what young people think, but on how they think, that they think.
Our understanding is then that the drive for a decolonised education ought not to centre so much on what is or is not worth learning, but on understanding how learners are being positioned by the educational environment with respect to what is being learned.
Take, for example, the map projections that we have come to accept as ‘normal’ and ‘correct’. A spherical world existing in an infinite universe has no top or bottom, no centre or sides. It is only when one is required to project such a sphere onto a flat surface that one is compelled to make decisions about what must be placed in the centre and what must be placed on the sides; what goes on the top and what goes on the bottom. Because the cartographers who developed the maps we know were European, it is Europe that occupies the central and dominant position on the map projection. But projections that place Africa or Australia or Brazil or India in the centre would be equally accurate, or inaccurate, as the case might be.
We are of the opinion that decolonising education starts with a pedagogical approach that makes these choices, and their artifice, explicit. All knowledge, all assessment, all pedagogical approaches, are articulations of power relations in society. They serve particular agendas. A decolonised education needs to expose those agendas. While it is not always the case that these agendas are deliberately generated or sustained, and while certain educational practices are often perpetuated simply because they have become normalised through familiarity, it is nevertheless inevitable that if we continue to root our educational systems in ideological frameworks that were designed, whether deliberately or not, to foster certain colonial mindsets, then we will continue – to some degree – to perpetuate those mindsets.
By decolonising education, we promote the understanding that what is ‘central’ is not fixed; we compel learners to consider other potential centres; we require those who have benefitted from having their own paradigms centralised to occupy the marginal spaces too; we create the opportunities for those who may have been relegated to the periphery, a legitimate space at the centre. This understanding of decolonising does not reduce the educational space. It is – contrary to what the prefix ‘de-’ might suggest – not simply a removal of everything Western.
The intention behind decolonising education is not to remove Europe or the United States from the map. Doing so would mean that we have learnt nothing about the issue of discrimination, and simply replaced one set of exclusionary power relations with another. Rather, decolonising education ought to facilitate an expansion of our worldviews, a shifting of our positions in relation to knowledge. It ought to challenge the notion that any single worldview can be considered the ‘normal’ one. The incidental act of early European cartographers describing their world from a European perspective has had an enormous impact. The fact that the maps of Europeans were used by the explorers whose journeys culminated in the colonisation of much of the world by England, Spain, France and Portugal, among others, and which led to a large influx of Europeans into the rest of the world, has profoundly shaped the way people construct both their own identities, and the identities of others, today.
The boundaries between countries, the very notion that countries can be divided into ‘East’ and ‘West’, ‘North’ and ‘South’, with all the associated problematic connotations, can be directly linked to early European maps. Thus in very many subtle ways, the fact that Europe currently occupies the upper central space in common map projections, influences how people come to understand themselves in relation to the rest of the world. By virtue of this positioning, European culture – its art, its music, its history, its languages, its values – has been allowed greater influence over how we shape society than cultures from places on the periphery of the map. Even now, that ‘map’ is imprinted onto various social endeavours and influences the way that institutions understand their functions.
Education is no exception. For example, education prowess is still measured, to a large extent, according to the learner’s ability to master one or more European languages. The texts regarded as seminal in many fields of study are written by ‘Western’ thinkers. Much of the literature we regard as ‘classic’, for example, is generated in the ‘West’. Familiarity with the works of Shakespeare, as valuable as that might be, has become almost synonymous with being literate, reinforcing the Anglo-centricity of English in the modern world. Even the figures held up as pioneers and role models within our disciplines, if not actually European, at least think in European ways.
The pedagogical approaches, the curriculum choices, the methods of assessment, the very essence of our educational institutions promote European understandings of the world. The result is that knowledge of the world has a tendency to be determined according to European norms. Thus if a professor from a major ‘Western’ university posits a hypothesis, it is likely to be accorded greater credibility among academics than a similar hypothesis advanced by an African or Latin American professor, for example; and citations from ‘Western’ universities would tend to be regarded as weightier than citations from Asian or African universities.
And this prejudice towards ‘Western’ knowledge is not restricted to university scholarship only. Overseas schooling systems and qualifications – particularly Western ones – are still generally perceived as superior to local ones by much of the South African public.
* Ruddock is an Assessment Specialist at the Independent Examinations Board (IEB).
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.