Decolonising the Curriculum

One of the big questions in South African education at the moment is how to “decolonise” the curriculum. It is a question that has been around for decades, but has been gaining traction lately, thanks to the recent student protests. It is, I believe, absolutely essential to address this issue if any meaningful form of reconciliation is to be achieved in a country still deeply divided after Apartheid. But it is not as easy a question to address as the students – who are demanding it happen immediately – seem to think.


The students are quite correct to remind us that the kinds of knowledge that the system regards as valuable, as well as the ways in which that knowledge is accessed, favour white students. What students are expected to know, and how they come to know it, are not neutral. No learning is ever neutral. Education systems are invariably designed to promote and maintain power structures, and particularly to reinforce the dominance of those who occupy the seats of privilege.The South African system is no different. It is delusional to believe that passing the laws that abolished Apartheid would end racial division, when the systems and organisations that allowed Apartheid to function remain largely unchanged.


I am going to focus on education here, because that is a field where I have some expertise, but I think racial bias is endemic to various social structures. There are a number of ways that racism still flourishes in South African educational structures. By the way, before I continue, I need to make it clear that when I talk about racism, I do not necessarily mean hatred of people of a different colour. As humans we like polarise things. We find the world much easier to understand if we can clearly divide everything into binary opposites: good and evil; men and women; racist and non-racist.But real life does not operate that way. Things tend to operate along a spectrum. Yes, some racist practices involve overt hatred. But some forms of racism operate from the best intentions, because the racist behaviours and perspectives have become normalised. And this kind of racism is more difficult to address because its practitioners are generally unaware that they are perpetuating racist systems. They might even defend them as “best practice”. It is entirely possible to love black people and still perpetuate racism. And our education system is a prime example.


One of the problematically pervasive beliefs about education in general is that it is about knowledge and skills only. We overlook the fact that education and the construction of identity are intricately interwoven. One cannot provide any form of education that does not have a profound and lasting impact on the way young people think about themselves and the world. To think at all is to shape oneself. The head and the heart are not divorced. To speak to one is to speak to the other.


So when an entire education system is designed around an Industrial Age English model that values compliance above deep learning, where children enter and exit the system in fairly homogenous batches, where everybody must look the same and be “neat and presentable” (what does that even mean? And what possible education advantage is to be gained by insisting on English hairstyles and Victorian uniforms?), where education is something that happens to children rather than with them, then how can we be surprised that so many young people resent the experience?


Importantly, for today’s discussion, how can we not see the racism so deeply entrenched in that system? What does it say to an African child when access to economic success and social status can only be gained through a system that regards one’s capacity to conform to English norms (and archaic ones at that) as the hallmark of civil and educational achievement? How can we continue to defend a system that compels African – and particularly black African – children to redefine themselves in problematic ways?


It starts with the language of teaching and learning in this country. Beyond foundational education, the vast majority of young people cannot be educated in their mother tongues. The justification is always based on the fact that the institutions of higher learning do not facilitate learning in an indigenous African language, and that as a result of the dearth of academic literature in these languages and the wealth of material in English in particular, this is unlikely to change. The flaw in the argument, of course, is that in South Africa only 16% of young people will end up going to university anyway. A system that gears itself to accommodating only those 16% is criminally neglectful of the 84%. And that 84% will most likely require an education that enables them to engage meaningfully with people in their own communities, in languages they do understand. Have you ever tried to learn anything in your second language? It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are: if you are compelled to think critically in a language not your own, you are bound to look stupid. And matric results are, unfortunately, linked to opportunity in this country. Hence the frantic race for university places every year. If you speak one of the languages of teaching and learning as a mother tongue, however, you clearly have an advantage in competing for the limited university spaces and the economic benefits attached.There are few opportunities outside of that.


This is, by the way, why I do not support the “free university education for all” leg of the students’ campaign. Free university education for all disadvantages the 84%. Because the type and quality of the basic education a child receives will be enormously influential in that child’s capacity to produce the kinds of results that will allow university access in the first place, the majority of the 16% who gain university access will tend to be relatively privileged anyway. The money that the students want government to set aside for “free university”, if we are promoting a truly socialist agenda, needs to go to providing opportunities for the 84%, and should therefore be spent on basic education reform, not tertiary education.


In all this, the message that young black South Africans receive is that their languages are not good enough, rigorous enough, important enough. The implicit message is that the less African you can be, the more successful you will be. And it cannot be argued that anybody who is white is automatically advantaged by a system that values their language as a language of learning and teaching. Whereas those young black people who manage to master English or Afrikaans in order to make progress in the system, become progressively isolated form their own cultural roots and are compelled to redefine themselves in ways that alienate them from their communities. I have taught very many young black people, who have confessed that they are often regarded as “coconuts” as a result of their educations. I think it is a sad comment on a system that requires people to unbecome in the name of social advancement.


Perhaps a less visible form of systemic racism lies in the epistemological structures – how knowledge is conveyed. Professor Leketi Makalela (his blog – unfortunately not particularly active – speaks to some of his ideas, but I would suggest reading his published papers) , who heads the Division of Languages, Literacies and Literatures at the University of the Witwatersrand (and any student who truly understands that decolonising the curriculum is a process will see in that name alone much to celebrate), notes that whereas English modes of learning favour precision and directness, African language conventions are reader -responsible ones that value circumlocution. English educational paradigms demand that the speaker communicate the message directly and concisely. African cultures, on the other hand, demand that the speaker conveys the message in such a way that the reader can infer meaning. All the taxonomies that have been developed to measure cognitive functioning – Bloom’s and Barrett’s, for example – favour Western styles of thinking. They establish clear hierarchies of cognitive functioning. But in a reader-responsible culture, where the listener must infer meaning as a starting point, comprehension is not necessarily the lowest of the cognitive functions. Thus even the assessment protocols unwittingly favour white children.


In all of this, the black child is forced to reshape herself. She is bombarded with the implicit message that in order to succeed, the cultural norms she has grown up with must be discarded. She must favour speed and precision of communication over slow deliberation and circumlocution. She forms that impression that her language (and therefore culture – for the two are not separate) are less valuable than white languages. Through the way that the school operates – its rules and processes – she learns that civility is conformity to an English worldview, which (not always overtly, but no less powerfully) regards hers as barbaric. The more educated she becomes, through what is essentially a white system (even in the “township” schools), the more she is alienated from her culture, and the more her sense of self becomes conflicted.


So I fully support the move to “decolonise the curriculum”. Not to do so will leave millions of young people psychologically damaged. But I suspect that in their zeal, the students have not understood the full extent of the problem. It is a not a question of simply addressing problems within the the curriculum alone. in fact, the curriculum is the easiest part to deal with. But the entire system is compromised, from pedagogy and epistemology, to assessment protocols and the purpose for which basic education is being used. It cannot be addressed immediately. To threaten to boycott classes and damage property while it is addressed is unrealistic. There are no shortcuts here.


And to reference professor Makalela again, maybe the term “decolonise” is not a helpful term. He argues that English (and therefore all the issues around identity that speaking a language brings with it) has become a fundamental part of a young African person’s identity. Ubuntu, he insists, means that no one language is complete without another. He contends that multilingualism is not the same as multiple monolingualisms ( . All of the languages a person speaks occupy a space in that person’s head – they are part of the same identity. Meaningful decolonisation, therefore, cannot simply be a process of removing all vestiges of a painful colonial past, but must find a way to integrate that with who we are now. The term “decolonisation” implies a removal of something, and such a removal would diminish multilingual people. English (and all that it implies) have become a part of who the young African person is now. To simply remove it would precipitate another kind of identity crisis. Rather, the aim should be finding a way that this Englishness and Africanness can cohabit in the same headspace in ways that empower the student and enhance identity. It is a much more challenging problem.


I feel enormously privileged to be working in education at such a time in our history. It is frustrating to see how long the process is, and occasionally disheartening to see the looming obstacles, but it is exciting nonetheless. But – to all the students out there, yearning for a system that is free of the colonial baggage that weighs so heavily – there is good work happening. The work has started and is gathering momentum, and while this generation is unlikely to benefit from it, things will most assuredly be better for the generations to come.



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  1. Reblogged this on Who represents the Southside? and commented:
    While I was in Cape Town, South Africa in November University Students were protesting. One of the primary needs that came out of that protest was for a decolonied curriculum to be developed and taught in South Africa. This blog by Peter Ruddock provides his thoughts on the process. I really enjoyed reading this and it made me wonder what a decolonial curriculum in NZ would look like.


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