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Universities can’t decolonise the curriculum without defining it first

Academics are trying to rid South Africa’s universities of the procedures, values, norms, practices, thinking, beliefs and choices that mark anything non-European and not white as inferior.

Decolonising the curriculum forms part of this work. But what does this actually mean? The definition of “decolonising the curriculum” remains a grey area. There’s also no clarity about whose responsibility it is to undertake this process. It’s crucial to develop shared understandings and ideas of the meaning of both curriculum and decolonisation.

American theorist William Pinar defines curriculum theory as the interdisciplinary study of educational experience. Educational experience implies more than just the topics covered in a course. It encompasses the attitudes, values, dispositions and world views that get learned, un-learned, re-learned, re-formed, deconstructed and reconstructed while studying towards a degree.

And what is decolonisation? When it comes to university curricula, this seems to involve replacing works from Europe or the global North with local theorists and African authors. This is meant to prevent African universities from becoming mere extensions of former colonisers.

But decolonising the curriculum is far more nuanced than replacing theorists and authors. If “curriculum” encompasses a broader educational experience, universities first need to define how they approach the development and dissemination of curricula. Only then can they move forward with the process of decolonisation.

Approaches to curriculum theory

So what approach to curriculum theory and practice do South Africa’s universities subscribe to? There is no single answer. But this question is particularly crucial in any post-conflict society. There are four ways of approaching curriculum theory and practice. These are:

  • curriculum as product: certain skills to master and facts to know;

  • curriculum as process: the interaction of teachers, students, and knowledge;

  • curriculum as context: contextually shaped; and,

  • curriculum as praxis: practice should not focus exclusively on individuals alone or the group alone. It must explore how both create understandings and practices.

I’d like to focus particularly on curriculum as context and as praxis. These approaches seem to align well with my definition of “decolonising the curriculum”. A contextual approach opens the door for universities to critique how curriculum – and therefore education – reproduces unequal social relations after graduation.

Praxis creates conditions to democratise learning spaces. It makes room for both individual and group identities within the teaching and learning context. This creates shared and negotiated understandings and practices while knowledge is being generated and disseminated.

Universities that wish to decolonise their curricula could benefit from understanding these approaches. This might also help people to stop conflating transformation – another imperative at universities and in South Africa more broadly – with decolonisation.

Transformation is not decolonisation

Many people in South Africa use the terms transformation and decolonisation interchangeably. In curriculum debates after apartheid, transformation has come to mean replacing texts by scholars and writers who are white or European with work done by those who are neither.

These debates invoke strong emotions and responses. An overwhelming impression has emerged: that decolonisation equals an attack on white academics by black academics. This perception, in my view, requires unsettling.

Decolonisation is not a project over which one racial group can claim sole custodianship. I argue that South Africans, as a people, must agree that colonialism and apartheid robbed the country of ideas, skills, creativity, originality, talent and knowledge. All of these attributes got lost through legislated discrimination of black people, most of whom could have enriched the country even further.

But some people who have benefited directly from the ills of colonialism and apartheid still struggle to accept this fact. They have developed a false need to defend a system that maimed, dehumanised, oppressed and stripped generation after generation of the South African majority. These groups, I’d argue, should be the first to be genuinely repentant about this history. They need to openly acknowledge what’s become a common lie at universities: that if something is white or European, it’s superior to anything black or African.

To put it in plain terms: white South African academics are as vital in driving genuine curriculum decolonisation as their black peers.

Black and white academics are in this together

This will involve conscious, deliberate, non-hypocritical and diligent interest by both black and white academics in indigenous knowledge systems, cultures, peoples and languages. Theories must be generated that are informed by life as it is lived, experienced and understood by local inhabitants. Universities need to introduce well theorised scholarship emerging from, and underpinned by, the African local experience. This must happen across disciplines.

All of this work will encourage the growth of truly African universities.

Charles Eliot, a former Harvard University President, once described the characteristics of an American university:

A university must grow from seed. It cannot be transplanted from England or Germany in full leaf and bearing. When the American university appears, it will not be a copy of foreign institutions, but the slow and natural growth of American social and political habits.

My definition of a decolonised curriculum foregrounds African identities and world views. But this doesn’t exempt it from critique. Universities need to keep encouraging critique and problematisation of what is considered to be knowledge and the processes involved in generating it. And a decolonised curriculum needs to exist in dialogue and contestation with the Greek, Arab and European worlds. It cannot be seen to be everything about all things.

I’d suggest that this definition will initiate genuine, sincere and progressive decolonisation of South Africa’s higher education curriculum.

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