Decolonising the Curriculum

University of Johannesburg
In 2016, colleagues at the University of Johannesburg invited me to join their discussion about decolonizing the curriculum.  This has become an important issue for South African universities, in the context of the Fees Must Fall movement.  I believe it is an important issue for universities all over the world.  Here are some thoughts on the question.
The hegemonic curriculum

A particular way of organizing knowledge underpins the curriculum that most university teaching follows. I call it the research-based knowledge formation.  It is usually organized into disciplines such as Physics, Biochemistry, Literature and Law. But it constantly evolves, so we also get Computing Science, Climate Science, etc.  Depending on the degree, this knowledge is woven together with the local practical knowledge that students will need in their future professions.

It’s the research-based knowledge formation that gives university education its prestige, and is the centre of the trouble about coloniality.  In many anti-colonial critiques, it’s called “Western” knowledge, and denounced as something that was imposed by the West on the rest of the world - and needs to be shaken off.

Collecting knowledge: Darwin's ship
I think that’s a mistaken view.  The dominant knowledge formation is not so much Western as imperial.  The scientific revolution was interwoven with the expansion of European empires.  Information was collected across the colonized world, brought back to the imperial centre, processed there and assembled into the disciplines we know.  The knowledge institutions of the imperial centre became the key sites of theory, method, and intellectual authority.  (They still are.  Just look at the top names in any league table of world universities: Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Sorbonne...)

The colonized world wasn’t outside this knowledge formation.  In fact, colonized societies and their intellectuals had a massive historical role in creating it.  Post-colonial societies are still building it in the neoliberal age.  Think of the role of the global South in fields like AIDS research or development economics; or think of the huge investment recently made by the Chinese dictatorship in engineering, ICT, military and biomedical research.

The basic problem in the coloniality of knowledge is not a clash of cultures, but the operation of social power.  It is power that has allowed unequal appropriations of knowledge, and marginalization of other knowledge formations.  Shaped into the hegemonic curriculum in a selective education system, it also delivers privilege.  Thus higher education has been connected with wealth and poverty, gender, racial divisions and language – all around the world.  The growth of a ruthless transnational capitalism, abetted by neoliberal state elites, is making this worse.

The hegemonic curriculum has also, paradoxically, been a means of social mobility, and many challenges to privilege.  Research-based knowledge demands critique of received ideas.  Universities are privileged institutions but surprisingly often have been sites of dissent against state, church and corporate elites.

Other knowledge formations

Challenges to the hegemonic curriculum often meet the question, “what can you put in its place?”  But we don’t want anything that goes exactly into that place!  If we look for resources to build a more inclusive curriculum, there are other knowledge formations of scope and intellectual power.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith
Indigenous knowledges are the locally-based knowledge formations created by colonized peoples; usually with deep roots before colonization. There is growing appreciation of their sophistication and scope: for instance, how precise knowledge of the natural world made it possible for whole societies to live and flourish in apparently very harsh environments.  Indigenous knowledge is not static, but has always been able to adapt and grow.  A classic illustration is Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonising Methodologies (2nd edition 2012).

Other universalisms are systems of knowledge intended to have general and not just local application, whose logic does not derive from the imperial knowledge economy.  Much the best known is knowledge based on Islamic culture.  This did not stop short with the Muslim golden age in philosophy and science - it has continued to generate new directions in jurisprudence, sociology, economics, natural science and more. A fascinating recent example is Syed Farid Alatas’ Applying Ibn Khaldun (2014).

Ranajit Guha
Southern theory is the name I use for concepts generated in the colonial encounter itself, and from the experience of colonial and postcolonial societies. Famous examples are the CEPAL school of development economics in Latin America launched by Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado, and the Subaltern Studies project in history launched by Ranajit Guha.  The extraordinary research on land, environment and economy by Bina Agarwal and other Indian feminists is a more recent example.

Curricular justice – on a world scale

All these forms of knowledge are potential resources for change; but they can be used in very different ways.  We also need principles of justice in education.  How this would work in curriculum has mostly been debated at a national level, but it can be taken to the larger scale.

Prioritising the interests of the least advantaged is the basic idea of distributive justice.  In education, it does not mean creating curriculum ghettoes, but is a principle for reconstructing the mainstream.  It means finding a place for the knowledge that least advantaged groups already have, but also gaining access to powerful knowledges that they need for the future.  Globally, that means accessing the resources of different knowledge formations, including the dominant one.  Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet who actually set up an experimental college (now a university), was clear that multiple 'civilizations', as he put it, had to be drawn on.

Curriculum reform, if it’s not to be the imposition of an orthodoxy – as authoritarian regimes try to do - requires us to think hard about the relationship between democracy and education. In an education oriented to democracy, all learners are advantaged, not disadvantaged, by others’ success in learning.  And that is only likely to happen through curriculum that emphasises shared knowledges and cooperative learning.  Universities often do this better in graduate programmes than in mass undergraduate programmes.

Education is about nurturing people’s capacities to act, and the society’s collective capacities to act.  It’s logically possible to direct education towards the capacities needed to build more equal social relations. That is actually done, by many teachers in many places.  The problem is to make that practice the mainstream.  We need working models of good schools and good universities, which can appear anywhere in the world. It’s important to circulate news of good work; I’d be delighted to hear from readers who have news to pass on.

These thoughts, I’m aware, are incomplete; but the issues seem very important for thinking about knowledge, universities, and research.  My paper for UJ is available on their website here:'s%20Paper%20on%20Decolonisation%20of%20Knowledge.pdf.  The basic ideas about curricular justice are spelt out in my book Schools and Social Justice (1993), described here:
Back to Top