Decolonising the curriculum


By Conrad Hughes, Campus and Secondary Principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière




"The work to purposefully and intentionally 'tackle' racism has begun in schools and universities across the world. What does this work look like and how will we hold ourselves accountable to each other and for the young people we are educating? Conrad Hughes describes the actions educational institutions can take to ‘decolonise the curriculum’

—Jane Larsson, Executive Director, CIS


The modern idea of a curriculum, which is to say a published and detailed scheme of work that lays out what students will learn, is relatively recent. It was only after the 1850s and the expansion of compulsory education that schools and universities began to detail the aims, objectives, assessment, and structure of courses systematically and massively.

Needless to say, the act of designing a curriculum is political, economic, cultural and social: curricula do not fall out of the sky, they are designed by people.

Some curricula, early on, had clear philosophical and even ideological aims: the teaching of national history, for example, was explicitly to unite students under common references to symbols, dates, and legacies so as to reinforce nationalist sentiments. Educational programmes of the colonial and war periods were full of jingoistic, nationalist, political and even propagandistic prerogatives. In general, many history textbooks were and continue to be subject to strong biases.

Looking at education this way—as something that carries an agenda so to speak—is relatively recent and can be situated with the birth of postmodernism and postcolonialism. 

In the wake of World War II, from the late 1940s through to the 1980s, three important forces would change the relationship with history and knowledge:

  1. Decolonisation: countries across Africa and Asia became independent and started to question the way that political, historical, and economic relationships had been forged and normalised over the centuries. The need to recount African and Asian histories became more prevalent. 
  2. The end of World War II led to an explosion of existentialist and feminist thought in Europe: the violence of the Holocaust put Enlightenment, rationalist convictions into doubt. Previous deterministic convictions were questioned, and cast-types were seen more as social constructs than fixed identities. People were free to choose their lives and what they wanted to become. 
  3. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Civil Rights movement in the United States led to social justice uprisings and awareness movements including Black Consciousness, Women’s Rights and, later, Gay Rights.

Running through these intellectual and social reforms, two key philosophical movements emerged: postmodernism and postcolonialism.

Postmodernism, best expressed by French thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Gilles Deleuze, is the idea that knowledge works in tacit, hidden ways, through codes and assumptions, unstated systems and constructions. An agenda of patriarchal, rationalist, and capitalist thinking has essentially characterised the formation of knowledge over the last four hundred years. Although postmodernism is often derided as being obtuse and over-intellectualised (which is a fair criticism), its impact on the way we look at the world cannot be overlooked. From now on, knowledge could be ‘deconstructed’, in other words, pulled apart to show how latent strata of power and ideology lie behind it.

Postcolonialism is a similar project in that it seeks to deconstruct knowledge, but it does so with a specific emphasis on the way that colonised nations have been dominated culturally, linguistically, and economically. The whole enterprise of knowledge, from a postcolonial perspective, is deeply embedded in colonialist power and economic imperatives. The main authors of this view are Franz Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Ngugi Thiong'o, Arundathi Roy, Homi Babba, and, more recently, Achille Mbembe. Postcolonialism seeks alternatives to Western paradigms of knowledge, referring instead to non-Western philosophies of social cohesion, cyclical time, and ancestry.   

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many universities, particularly liberal arts colleges in the United States, saw postmodern and postcolonial thinkers disrupt what was seen as a continuity of patriarchal, Western, imperialistic thought, urging for booklists, courses, guest speakers and faculty to express a more balanced opinion and not merely the Western, masculine canon. Acronyms such as WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) and DWEM (Dead White European Males) were used to describe the hitherto dominant paradigm.

A number of famous artists, activists and public figures embraced some elements of this movement: the Black Panther Angela Davis (who is still an activist, concentrating on the carceral system in the United States); Muhammad Ali with his questioning of white supremacy and, like James Brown and Malcolm X, his efforts to give black people a sense of pride and identity outside the constructs of a white world; Bob Marley and Fela Kuti’s Pan-African philosophies, James Baldwin’s deconstruction of American sociology and Women’s Liberation leader Gloria Steinem’s work on female identity and male-female relationships of power.

Postmodern and postcolonial ideas were accelerated in the 21st Century through the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements. Although, at face value, they may appear to have erupted onto the scene after heavily mediatised events such as the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the killing of George Floyd, they are part of a longer historical development of revolt and subversion.

So, what does it actually mean to decolonise the curriculum?

Schools and universities are no longer merely trying to transmit knowledge and culture, they are fostering critical thinking. This is widely seen as an important educational aim for the individual and for society. Critical thinking features in most 21st Century skills designs.

Decolonising the curriculum does not mean, as detractors might suggest, rather disingenuously, a superficial and rushed replacement of authors on book lists or merely throwing the Western canon out the window for the sake of doing it. The project has been slow in the making—even if it is something of a bandwagon today—and reposes on those central goals of education, which are to think deeply, to consider multiple perspectives, and to situate knowledge in time, power and politics.

We can no longer get away with telling students that the Ancient Greeks invented mathematics, that Columbus discovered America, that the Declaration of Independence was truly democratic, that European and American literature and history are essentially the only humanities worth knowing, or that it is somehow understandable that historical heroes and leaders in the history books have been almost entirely white men. It also seems difficult today to present the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, and Auguste Comte without some critical reflection on the strongly racist ideology running through their convictions and writings. There must be some distancing from these issues, some critical thought, some reflection on why history has been presented the way it has and why some discourses have been promoted over others. 

And what are we doing in educational circles to rethink discourses around discoveries and origins? For example, do we explain that Pythagoras’ theorem was actually discovered much earlier in Babylon; that the Cyrus Cylinder and the edict of Asoka can be seen as the earliest formal statements on human rights and tolerance; that Jesus was not white; that the first universities were in Morocco and India; that Pushkin has African ancestry; Alexandre Dumas was mixed race; that Chinese discoverer Zengh He had navigated far more extensively and earlier that European navigators; and do we teach about the ancient queens Hatchepsut, Nefertiti, Artemisia, Zenobia, Boudicca, Cleopatra or ancient female poets such as Enheduanna and Sappho?

To be even more postcolonial, to what extent might the canon of history and performativity, a type of global competition of Great Man History constructed by narratives on the first, the strongest, the best, be overturned altogether? Are these competitive and intrinsically imperialistic trajectories not part of the problem in the first place? Ancestral approaches such as that of Ubuntu tend to deconstruct this view entirely, placing the study of humanity in a more inclusive and less exclusivist modus operandi. Perhaps one day the past will not merely be a description of war, discovery, and dominion but, as authors such as Howard Zinn has attempted to do, a story of common people.     

Here are four questions for educators and leaders that will help guide the decolonisation of the curriculum:

  1. Review each course outline or scope and curriculum sequence documentation. Imagine what this would look like from the perspective of postcolonial thought and try to ‘deconstruct’ the dominant narrative. What do you see?
  2. Investigate the extent to which cultural references, historical facts, authors, and discoveries are presented as Western, male and European. Why is this?
  3. Ask what sort of discussions are happening in the classroom to ensure critical thinking and deep reflection on the power of representation in the way that textbooks present materials to learners.
  4. Reflect on the extent to which the curriculum offers students views and stories from First Peoples, Africa, Asia, Pre-Colombian civilizations, the Middle East, and Oceanic regions. What do you see? 

And here are three suggestions for action:

  1. Consider project-based learning as an opportunity for students to investigate their own ancestry and to present their findings to their classmates.
  2. Consider guiding questions for discussions, presentations and written assignments that focus on the sociology of knowledge (“Why do we think this is important?”; “What are other cultural perspectives on this same question?”)
  3. Only present the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution with full understanding and reflection on slavery and colonisation.

Decolonising the curriculum is about being more accurate, more inclusive, and more interculturally responsive. It is not about forcing one ideological perspective on students, it’s about telling both sides of the story.    


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