Decolonizing the curriculum – is that all there is to it?

In his thought-provoking blog post, Prof Jonathan Jansen questioned the practical usefulness of the concept of ‘decolonizing education’, basically asking ‘where is the meat?’ He asks for a theory of change for bringing radical ideas into the curriculum and sees the movement as lacking in such a theory. But – where will we find it? Of course, restructuring the University curriculum is important. But I do wonder if it is not better to take a step back and to start the analysis a little earlier. Let’s start by asking what the colonial education system was all about – what was its function at the time – and what do we expect a decolonial education system to deliver in the 21st Century?

Fast forward to the 21st century, and we find ourselves in a very different situation. Educational systems the world over have expanded rapidly and massively, in part as a result of emancipatory struggles, in the global North, but even more so in the South. Let me illustrate this by a few examples, using the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in tertiary education as a yardstick. As defined by UNESCO, the GER this is the total enrolment within a country ‘in a specific level of education, regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the population in the official age group corresponding to this level of education’. Tertiary education is more than just University education: it corresponds to levels 5 through to 8 of the UNESCO Standard Classification System of Education (ISCED). This stands for ‘short cycle tertiary education’ up to the PhD level; it means that many types of post-secondary education, such as training of teachers of nurses, also fall under tertiary education.

The first thing to note about colonial education is that there was so little of it. The function of education was limited to recruiting a small number of local cadres for work within the colonial system – what Campbell (2017) calls ‘education for submission’. An efficient way of recruitment was to provide substandard education in a foreign language to a small group of ‘privileged’ children. Some were so intelligent that it showed even under adverse conditions – they were then recruited into a local elite and given a continuing education of a higher standard. This system clearly was conceived in a top-down manner, with the interests of colonial administration in mind. It is perhaps good to realize that such top-down educational systems were not unique to the colony. Educational systems in Europe at the end of the 19th and well into the 20th century were also conceived top-down with the intention of forming the elite and keeping workers in their place. This also means that those who did not make it through the system perhaps did not learn so much, except for being inculcated with values the elites thought were important.

To illustrate the rates of expansion, let me give a few examples. My father, born in 1927, never received any tertiary education. If he would have, he would have been one of the ‘happy few’: according to the Altbach’s Encyclopaedia of Higher Education, by 1950, the GER in tertiary education in Western Europe was around 4.5%. I myself had the privilege of going to University twice: first in 1974, then again in 2016. In 1975, the GER in tertiary education in the Netherlands had risen to 23.5% (data from UNESCO) – I was still happy and became part of an educated minority, but that minority was a lot larger than at the time my father could have gone to University. But by 2016, the GER in tertiary education had again risen, to over 80%. That means that what was still special 50 years ago has now become something much more common.

Let’s compare this to somebody like Jonathan Jansen. He is around my age, but he went to University in South Africa. In 1973, the GER for South Africa was similar to that of the Netherlands for 1950: it stood at 4.4%. But in 2016, it had climbed sharply to around 21%, similar to the Dutch level of the early seventies. This does not mean to say that South Africa is somehow ‘behind’ the Netherlands and that it only needs to ‘catch up’. It does mean, however, that social changes in the function of education that occurred in the Netherlands will also occur in South Africa and in the rest of the continent, although in every country these changes will play out differently.

Why is that relevant for decolonizing education? For an answer we can look to Bourdieu, who has pointed out how higher education can be conceptualized as a sorting machine that selects students according to an implicit social classification (not so implicit in the case of South Africa) and reproduces the same students according to an explicit academic classification. But if enrolment rates multiply, the function of education can no longer stay the same: graduates will end up in a different place in the social classification. In periods of rapid expansion, this can of course lead to a crisis of expectations, expressed through student unrest and in other ways.

However, massification of higher education points to another, more important issue. Instead of conceiving education and an educational system top-down, as in the colonial period, it will be necessary to conceive it bottom-up. As outlined above, in colonial times the demands on the quality of primary and secondary education for all but the elite could be limited. Children needed to be given a chance to show their language abilities and once the selection was made, would be taught all else they needed to know at higher levels of education. The fact that those without the required abilities did not get the maximum benefit from their schooling did not matter so much. Again, as long as the system is aimed at educating only a relatively small proportion of the population, this works fine.

However, in a highly developed society, maximum levels of education are a must in order to ensure maximum productivity. This means that under-achievement is no longer an acceptable outcome. If primary and secondary education are of substandard quality, the stress on tertiary education to make good on the missed opportunities of earlier phases will become unbearable. Furthermore, those that do not proceed to tertiary education will be left empty-handed. In other words, in future, all brains will be needed and they need to be developed at all levels of education. This means that the educational pyramid needs to be conceived bottom-up. Decolonial education must mean education that is relevant to youngsters no matter how much education they get or at which level they study.

There is one area for which this expansion of education has a particular relevance: this is the area of the medium of instruction. The simple story is that just like Leiden University switched from Latin as medium of instruction to French and then to Dutch and English, education in Africa as well will have to switch to using indigenous languages. If enrolment ratios continue to increase, it will become a practical impossibility to give all students the required foreign language skills – this is, as Kaschula and Nkomo say, the ‘elephant in the room’. It is an elephant I will examine in greater detail in my dissertation on ‘Language, Education and Identity in Africa’, which I hope to be able to defend later this year.

Decolonizing education should go beyond decolonizing the University curriculum. It is necessary to also question the top-down model of education that was inherited from colonial times.