/ 28 October 2022

Decolonised education is still a radical idea

Graphic Edu Decolonise Website2 1200px
(John McCann/M&G)


How does a radical idea make its way through a university? This question is at the heart of our recently published book The Decolonization of Knowledge: Radical Ideas and the Shaping of Institutions in South Africa and Beyond

The profoundly radical idea of decolonisation came to command the attention of our country’s 26 public universities in 2015 and 2016, beginning with successful student protests against the presence of a prominent statue of arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes on the University of Cape Town campus.

As it evolved, the national protest movement came to encompass two overarching themes — decolonisation and free higher education. At some point, these ideas came together in the rousing student demand for “free, decolonised education”. 

While the push for decolonisation in South Africa was a broad one, demanding changes to institutional cultures (“too exclusive”), complexions (“too white”) and curriculum (“too European”), our book focuses on the third of these elements — the decolonisation of curricular knowledge. And it takes on the decolonisation of knowledge as an institutional problem, rather than simply looking at, for example, changes to the physics or sociology curricula. 

As researchers, our task was clear: to examine, five years after the first calls for decolonisation, how this radical idea fared at the level of the university curriculum. We interviewed more than 200 academics across the 10 former white universities where the demands for decolonisation were most intense, since the dominant theme at historically black universities was the material burden of high and exclusionary tuition fees — “fees must fall” — rather than decolonisation.

In the absence of any conceptual guide for what decolonisation could mean across the disciplines, what would academics do in their daily curriculum practice?

In short, little changed. We found that academics made up their own meanings for decolonisation at the personal and departmental levels. They interpreted decolonisation within the range of their intellectual and ideological comfort zones. 

For some, it meant academic remediation, or what used to be called academic development. For others, it implied good teaching. And many academics saw the inclusion of some African-specific content as meeting the demands for decolonisation.

While a few academics on every campus made heroic efforts, they soon saw the more radical versions of decolonisation thwarted by the powerful forces of resistance and inertia. Some leaders of decolonisation projects ended up resigning from institutional task teams set up to lead curriculum change, while others found ways of working within the limited scope afforded to pursue it. 

With the passage of time, these activist academics found that things reverted (in the words of scholar Sara Ahmed) to “institutional-as-usual” as soon as the protests waned and students returned to classes.

Drawing on neo-institutional theory, our study examines how institutions deal with radical ideas that do not fit in with the dominant knowledge arrangements that define what we call the institutional curriculum.

How do embedded actors in institutions make sense of, or give meaning to, such new ideas? What are the rules and procedures that keep existing knowledge in place, and insurgent knowledge out? And why is it so difficult for radical ideas like decolonisation to find a foothold within institutional life? 

There have certainly been prior attempts to understand restraints on curricula within a single university and how institutions “defang” radical ideas, like diversity. Our book, however, is the first empirical study of the institutional treatment of a radical curriculum idea across 10 universities. 

It offers an opportunity for scholars of curriculum change to examine close-up what happens when a radical idea commands and receives institutional attention under the pressure of sustained and intense student protests. 

What also makes this South African case interesting more broadly is that each of the 10 institutions responded with considerable energy and enthusiasm to the political demand for curriculum change — funding, task teams, conferences, and performance assessments were all directed to the challenge, and appeared to signal a commitment to the “decolonisation of knowledge”.

Broadly, this moment raises the enduring question in curriculum studies: did the university curriculum, in fact, change — and if so, how — in response to unprecedented political demand and apparent institutional commitment? In other words, what has been the uptake of the radical idea of decolonisation within the institutional curriculum? By joining curriculum theory and institutional theory, our research makes visible the different ways in which institutions respond to radical ideas under seemingly receptive conditions. 

So, what are the lessons to be learned from the decolonisation moment in South Africa? Three stand out. First, there is a limit to how far political symbolism can advance radical change in the curricula of universities — at some point activists must grapple with both the politics and the practicalities of pursuing such change. Second, activists pushing radical ideas need a theory of action to penetrate the solidity of institutions. And third, mere flare-ups of radical activism are not sufficient to hold university management accountable, for although they are quite willing to participate in institutional posturing while the heat is on, they have no intention of changing at all.

This article is based, in part, on the new book by Dr Cyrill Walters and Jonathan Jansen, The Decolonization of Knowledge: Radical Ideas and the Shaping of Institutions in South Africa and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, 2022). Dr Cyrill Walters is research fellow in higher education studies in the department of education (policy studies) at Stellenbosch University. Jonathan Jansen is distinguished professor in the education faculty at Stellenbosch University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.