Decolonising education: ‘Until the lion learns how to write, the story will always glorify the hunter’
Simphiwe Laura Stewart says a western-centric curriculum excludes the knowledge of a majority of the world’s population.
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Campaigners are demanding a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes to be removed from an Oxford University college amid growing anti-racism protests.
Simphiwe Laura Stewart, a DPhil/PhD student at the university and one of the facilitators of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, explains why she feels the monument should be taken down.
The question of a decolonised education system is not a complicated one and yet the world is currently gripped by this debate especially whether black and brown histories should be incorporated into what is currently a very white curriculum.
After the Rhodes Must Fall protest in Oxford, I received a message from a British history teacher who asked me whether I believe that it is natural for Western countries to centre a “non-Western” curriculum.
What I believe they were asking is why British children should be concerned with the achievements and traditions of those outside of this country.
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On one hand, this argument acknowledges that there is a gap in the curricula as they are presented, and on the other hand that this gap is created as a result of coercion – “until the lion learns how to write, the story will always glorify the hunter” – as the adage goes.
Decoloniality provides three discreet reasons why this stance is both morally reprehensible and unsustainable for a majority of people. Firstly, education is a non-material asset which has proven to be a key force in social mobility and societal transformation.
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Yet, due to historical structures that have allowed a small segment to amass an inordinate amount of money, the resulting structural problems (limited school funding, low teaching quality and income) prevent numerous poor children in Britain from reaching their academic potential.
Decoloniality proposes that access to a quality education should not be dictated by proximity to power, money and influence.
Second, a western-centric curriculum systematically excludes the knowledge and academic contributions of a majority of the world’s population(s). Not only does this limit the intellectual robustness of the material which schools currently present, it also severely restricts students’ imagination and the diversity of their academic toolbox.
A decolonised curriculum relies on critical pedagogy and multiculturalism so that students are encouraged to bring their perspectives into the classroom or engage with nature and teachers are challenged to interrogate their role as educators for example through arranging the class in a semi-circle instead of rows facing one person.
These minor changes do not erase white/European history but they do introduce white, black and brown children to ways of thinking and being that are empowering and democratic.
Third, the challenges of the world today are very different to those reflected in educational material at present. Children need to be equipped to respond to the climate crisis, the proliferation of the internet and technology as well as questions on space exploration. This type of critical thought requires transformational spaces which include a diversity of thought.
In conclusion, we must interrogate this not as a matter of black and white but as one of equipping children, equitably and structurally to reach their full academic potential. An academy that favours rich, white men with power only caters to their interests – at the detriment of the 96% of all British children who are educated and living outside of these spaces. On these terms, we can agree that a different future is possible and necessary.
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