/ 26 June 2019

Decolonise the curriculum for global relevance

The decolonisation discourse has been accompanied by fierce debates about what this concept means.
The decolonisation discourse has been accompanied by fierce debates about what this concept means. (David Harrison/M&G)

The link between education and human prosperity is universally acknowledged. It is for this reason that, in his State of the Nation address last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted “better educational outcomes” as one of the key goals for the government in the next 10 years.

Although there is consensus on the vital role played by education in social and economic development, there isn’t, unfortunately, agreement on how it can be used to achieve this. In South Africa, there is, however, sufficient consensus on the need to decolonise our education as part of a broad plan to strengthen our educational system and, indirectly, our society and economy. The need to decolonise our education comes out of a recognition that much of what is taught is a legacy from our colonial past, a past which was designed to entrench unequal power relations and privileges for a minority.

The decolonisation discourse has been accompanied by fierce debates about what this concept means. There has also been contention on how to go about decolonising knowledge, and the curriculum in particular. I will attempt to explain how perspectives from didactics can help us decolonise the curriculum effectively.

Didactics, also known as the science of teaching, recognises that if teaching and learning is to be successful, certain universal conditions must be met. These universal requirements are known as “didactic principles”. Of the several principles recognised in didactic theory, there are three which are of special relevance to the decolonisation of the curriculum.

In the colonial era, the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised was hierarchical, with the colonising culture having positioned itself as superior and “civilised” as opposed to the marginal and “barbaric” culture of the colonised. In this unequal relationship, the coloniser viewed anything indigenous as backward and valueless and the colonised were indoctrinated into believing that this was true. For example, in his book Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela says the following about Healdtown, the school he attended for his secondary education in the late 1930s. “Healdtown was a mission school of the Methodist Church, and provided a Christian and liberal arts education based on an English model. The principal of Healdtown was Dr Arthur Wellington, a stout and stuffy Englishman who boasted of his connection to the Duke of Wellington. At the outset of assemblies, Dr Wellington would walk on stage and say, in his deep bass voice, ‘I am the descendant of the great Duke of Wellington, aristocrat, statesman, and general, who crushed the Frenchman Napoleon at Waterloo and thereby saved civilisation for Europe — and for you, the natives.’ 

“At this, we would all enthusiastically applaud, each of us profoundly grateful that a descendant of the great Duke of Wellington would take the trouble to educate natives such as ourselves. The educated Englishman was our model; what we aspired to be were ‘black Englishmen’, as we were sometimes derisively called. We were taught — and believed — that the best ideas were English ideas, the best government was English government, and the best men were Englishmen.”

By sanctifying the values and beliefs of the colonial master as the golden standard to strive for, colonial education alienated the colonised from their own culture, and turned them into foreigners in their own land. Through its prioritisation of things European at the expense of things African, colonial education undermined, from an educational point of view, the didactic principle that urges that all teaching must proceed from the known to the unknown. By violating this principle, colonial education ultimately rendered its own teaching ineffectual while also weakening the learning potential of the colonised.

What do I mean by this?

In didactic theory, it is universally accepted that for a learner to acquire new knowledge, the new knowledge must form a link with the knowledge and experiences the learner already possesses. If the new knowledge relates to the learner’s experiences, then the learner will find the new knowledge meaningful and will therefore acquire it with ease and enjoyment. If new facts are not connected to the learner’s existing knowledge, the result is likely to be boredom, alienation and poor motivation.

This probably explains why in the campaign to decolonise our education, young people have routinely complained about how alienating and foreign some institutional cultures in South Africa are. The need to retain the learner’s interest and teach in a meaningful way is the reason teacher-trainees are urged to start with the familiar and then gradually proceed to the unfamiliar.

Colonial education violated this principle of proceeding from the known to the unknown in its foregrounding and veneration of European culture (the unknown) at the expense of the learner’s African culture (the known). Universities inherited this legacy and this explains why, even 25 years after the birth of a democratic South Africa, young people complain of cultural imperialism. So the challenge for universities is to make sure that students are taught first in relation to the experiences they already have and then gradually introduced to new facts and perspectives.

Having started with the familiar, an effective teacher is expected to proceed to the unfamiliar, for staying with the familiar will deprive the learner of new developmental experiences and modes of thought. As we decolonise the curriculum, it is important to remember the continuity imperative, for there is always a temptation in a decolonisation project to stay with the known for reasons that have no bearing on effective teaching and learning but are more connected with chauvinism and cultural pride. In the campaign to decolonise the curriculum, some young people have argued for a “decolonised, Afrocentric” curriculum, with Afrocentrism as a new standard and Africa as the beginning and end of what is worth knowing. But, to do this would not be truly developmental because in progressive thought Afrocentrism is never the end; it is rather a means, a stepping stone to a global platform where scholars engage in intellectual and cultural exchange as equals.

Starting with the known and proceeding to the unknown is inherently progressive because it recognises that while what is familiar is meaningful, a true end of empowering education is mastery of the unfamiliar. By being inward-looking and self-reflexive, Eurocentrism debilitated itself by cutting off links with the infinite riches of global human knowledge — something which may, in part, explain the slow but inevitable decline of the West. The narcissism and self-laudatory expostulations of Eurocentrism are shortcomings that an Afrocentric approach to knowledge and decolonisation must avoid.

In this epoch, where life in the global village has become an inescapable reality, thanks to rapid technological changes, the need to proceed from the known to the unknown, from the local to the global, has become a priority. We must, if we hope to teach for global relevance, decolonise knowledge to enable students to progress from the known to the unknown.

Related to the foregoing principle is another didactic requirement that has the potential to make the decolonisation of the curriculum effective. This principle refers to the need, when teaching, to proceed from the simple to the complex. Teaching that commences with the known does not only make learning interesting and memorable, but also makes it easy and manageable, for what is familiar is usually simple to grasp. But, when a teacher proceeds to the unknown, an element of complexity is introduced, and mastery of complexity is a key objective of worthwhile teaching and learning. Such mastery is made possible by the foundation that the teacher will have created by having started with the known and simple.

Finally, when decolonising the curriculum, we must remember the unity of human knowledge, for didactic theory also recognises the principle of totality, which is also known as the global principle or the principle of integration. Although each person is a member of a family, a clan and nation, on a higher plane each one of us is a member of a single human race — integrated into the whole by virtue of one’s humanness, confronted with similar human problems on account of being an organic member of the human species, and faced with peculiarities of the same human condition. Decolonised knowledge must therefore be integrated with the totality of human knowledge.

This should be easy to achieve if there is acceptance of the need to progress from the known to the unknown, from the simple to complex, and from the local to the global.

Didactic theory can be applied profitably in the decolonisation project. What it teaches us is that we must not decolonise the curriculum with the intention of basking in the glory of African culture and historical achievements, but with the purpose of employing the known, the simple and the local as a springboard for engagement with the unknown, the complex and the global on a higher international plane, for world citizenship is now unavoidable.

Since that time when early humans left the African savannah (the known, the simple and the local) to explore and inhabit the world beyond (the unknown, the complex and the global), the universalisation of human knowledge has been accelerating apace and the shrinking of the globe into a small village has continued relentlessly. Countries that recognise this fact as an inescapable reality of the future, and educate the young for meaningful participation therein, have a better chance of strengthening themselves and their economies.

Professor Marcus Ramogale is the deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at the Mangosuthu University of Technology.