By Conrad Hughes, Campus and Secondary Director at the Geneva International School, La Grande Boissière
“Work to intentionally and deliberately ‘fight’ racism has begun in schools and universities around the world. What does this work look like and how will we hold ourselves accountable to each other and to the young people we are educating? Conrad Hughes describes the actions that educational institutions can undertake to ‘decolonize the curriculum’
—Jane Larsson, Executive Director, CIS
The modern idea of a curriculum, which means a published and detailed scheme of work that defines what students will learn, is relatively recent. Only after the 1850s and the expansion of compulsory education did schools and universities begin to detail the aims, objectives, evaluation, and structure of courses systematically and massively.
Needless to say, the act of designing a curriculum is political, economic, cultural and social: curricula do not fall from the sky, they are designed by people.
Some curricula, at first, had clear philosophical and even ideological purposes: teaching national history, for example, was clearly to unite students under the usual references to symbols, dates, and heritage, in order to strengthen feelings nationalist. Educational programs of colonial and the war periods were full of jingoist, nationalist, political and even propagandist prerogative. In general, many history textbooks were and continue to be strong subjects prejudice.
Looking at education this way – as something that holds an agenda to say – is relatively recent and may occur with the birth of postmodernism and postcolonialism.
After World War II, from the late 1940s to the 1980s, three important forces would change the relationship with history and knowledge:
- Decolonization: countries across Africa and Asia became independent and began to question the way political, historical, and economic relations had been established and normalized over the centuries. The need to tell African and Asian stories became more prevalent.
- The end of World War II led to an explosion of existentialist and feminist thought in Europe: the violence of the Holocaust questioned the Enlightenment beliefs, rationalist. Previous deterministic beliefs were questioned and cast types were seen more as social constructors than fixed identities. People were free to choose their life and what they wanted to become.
- During the 1960s and 1970s, the Civil Rights movement in the United States led to social justice uprisings and awareness movements including the Black Conscience, Women’s Rights, and, later, Gay Rights.
Going through these intellectual and social reforms, two main philosophical movements emerged: postmodernism and postcolonialism.
Postmodernism, best expressed by French thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva and Gilles Deleuze, is the idea that knowledge functions in silent, hidden ways, through codes and assumptions, systems and unstable constructions. An agenda of patriarchal, rationalist and capitalist thinking has essentially characterized the formation of knowledge over the last four hundred years. Although postmodernism is often underestimated as numb and overly intellectualized (which is a fair critique), its impact on the way we view the world cannot be ignored. From now on, knowledge can be ‘deconstructed’, in other words, shared to show how the hidden layers of power and ideology lie behind it.
Postcolonialism is a project similar in that it seeks to deconstruct knowledge, but does so with a particular emphasis on how colonized nations have been culturally, linguistically, and economically dominated. The whole enterprise of knowledge, from a postcolonial perspective, is deeply ingrained in colonial power and economic imperatives. Leading authors of this view are Franz Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Ngugi Thiong’o, Arundathi Roy, Homi Babba and, most recently, Achille Mbembe. Postcolonialism seeks alternatives to Western paradigms of knowledge, referring instead to non-Western philosophies of social cohesion, cyclical time, and descent.
During the 1960s and 1970s, many universities, especially liberal arts colleges in the United States, saw postmodern and postcolonial thinkers disrupt what was seen as a continuation of patriarchal, Western, imperialist thought, demanding that textbooks, courses, speakers invited and faculty to express a more balanced mindset and not just the western, masculine canon. Acronyms such as WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) and DWEM (Dead White European Male) were used to describe the hitherto dominant paradigm.
A number of famous artists, activists, and public figures embraced some elements of this movement: The Black Panther Angela Davis (who is still an activist, focused on the carceral system in the United States); Muhammad Ali with his question about white supremacy and, like James Brown and Malcolm X, his efforts to give black people a sense of pride and identity outside the constructs of a white world; The Pan-African philosophies of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti, the deconstruction of American sociology by James Baldwin, and the work of Women Liberation leader Gloria Steinem on female identity and male-female power relations.
Postmodern and postcolonial ideas were accelerated in the 21st Century through And me AND Black lives matter movements. Although, by their face value, they may seem to have exploded on stage after the heavy media coverage of events such as the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the assassination of George Floyd, they are part of a longer historical development of revolt and overthrow.
So what does it really mean to decolonize the curriculum?
Schools and universities are no longer simply trying to transmit knowledge and culture, but they are promoting critical thinking. This is widely seen as an important educational goal for the individual and for society. Characteristics of critical thinking in most 21st Century skill models.
Decolonizing the curriculum does not mean, as the wrongdoers say, strangely, a superficial and hasty replacement of authors in book lists or simply throwing the western canon out the window for the sake of action. The project has been slow to make – even if it’s something of a gang today – and rests on those central goals of education, which are deep thinking, taking into account multiple perspectives, and putting knowledge into time, power, and politics. .
We can no longer escape by telling students that the Ancient Greeks invented mathematics, that Columbus discovered America, that the Declaration of Independence was truly democratic, that European and American literature and history are essentially the only human science worth knowing , or that it is somewhat understandable that the heroes and historical leaders in the history books have been almost entirely white men. It also seems difficult today to present the philosophies of Kant, Hegel and Auguste Comte without any critical reflection on the strongly racist ideology that pervades their beliefs and writings. There must be some distancing from these issues, some critical thoughts, some reflections on why the story is presented in the way it is and why some lectures are promoted over others.
And what are we doing in educational circles to rethink discourses about discovery and origin? For example, do we explain that the Pythagorean theorem was actually discovered much earlier in Babylon; that the Cyrus Cylinder and the Asoka Edict can be seen as the earliest official declarations of human rights and tolerance; that Jesus was not white; that the first universities were in Morocco and India; that Pushkin is of African descent; Alexandre Dumas it was a mixed race; that Chinese discoverer Zengh Ai had sailed much wider and earlier than European sailors; and do we teach about the ancient queens Hatchepsut, Nefertiti, Artemisia, Zenobia, Boudicca, Cleopatra or ancient female poets like Enheduanna and Sappho?
To be even more postcolonial, to what extent can the canon of history and performance be completely reversed, a kind of global competition of the History of the Great Man, constructed from narratives to the first, the strongest, the best? Aren’t these competing and essentially imperialist trajectories part of the problem? Previous approaches such as Ubuntu tend to completely deconstruct this view, placing the study of humanity in a more inclusive and less exclusivist modus operandi. Perhaps the past day will not be merely a description of war, discovery, and domination, but, as authors such as Howard Zinn have tried to do, a story of ordinary people.
Here are four questions for teachers and leaders that will help guide the decolonization of the curriculum:
- Review each course outline or the purpose and documentation of the curriculum sequence. Imagine what this would look like from the standpoint of postcolonial thought and try to ‘deconstruct’ the prevailing narrative. What are you looking at?
- Investigate the extent to which cultural references, historical facts, authors, and discoveries are presented as Western, masculine, and European. Why is this?
- Ask what kind of discussions are taking place in the classroom to provide critical thinking and in-depth reflection on the power of representation in the way textbooks present materials to students.
- Reflect on the extent to which the curriculum provides students with insights and stories from Early Peoples, Africa, Asia, Pre-Columbian civilizations, the Middle East, and the oceanic regions. What are you looking at?
And here are three suggestions for action:
- Consider project-based learning as an opportunity for students to investigate their backgrounds and present their findings to their classmates.
- Consider guiding questions for discussions, presentations, and written assignments that focus on the sociology of knowledge (“Why do we think this is important?”; “What are the other cultural perspectives on the same question?”)
- Present only the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution with full understanding and reflection on slavery and colonization.
Curriculum decolonization is about being more accurate, inclusive and more interculturally responsible. It is not about forcing an ideological perspective on students, it is about telling both sides of the story.
Explore the blogs below and more on topics related to inclusion through diversity, equality and anti-racism (I-DEA)
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