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Why we need to decolonize education and liberate our degrees

Like the rest of society; our education system is rooted in the past, and affected by legacies of social inequality. The first university in Britain still holds monuments to slave traders, and the most taught thinkers across the curriculums are overwhelmingly white and male.

Today in Britain, many of us want to live in a multicultural society embracing of difference; yet racist, sexist, and cis-heteronormative* attitudes continue to prevail and dominate our cultural norms and assumptions.

The effects of this are easy to test on yourself. If a character’s race is not mentioned in a book, do you assume they are white? What activities do you associate with black men, and with women of colour?  If someone refers to a surgeon, what do you assume their gender is? Do you find it difficult to imagine someone without knowing or assuming their gender?

Identifying these patterns in our own thought reveals how our minds are shaped by socially biased norms. In order to challenge this we have to actively unlearn assumptions we make about other people and places by being critical about what we assume is ‘normal’. This includes challenging systems and institutions that have come out of the same world which allowed for slavery, colonisation and the oppression of women to happen, and continue to co-exist with violence and oppression today. 

What do ‘colonised’ and ‘decolonize’ mean?

In connection to historical colonisation: a period of time where western nations including the British Empire sought to establish control over people in other parts of the world by force, the term ‘colonised’ can be used in education to refer to courses or institutions  being dominated by a small number of people’s perspectives masquerading as the whole truth. An example of this would be a course called “The History of philosophy” which only explored the views of male thinkers from the west. 

While every discipline including maths and sciences are subject to being controlled and dominated by certain human perspectives, the danger is that we do not recognise this. At school many of us are are encouraged to accept what we are taught as the truth, rather than question the perspective the information came from. Decolonising refers to  the practice of liberating a discipline from the control of a single group, opening it up to contributions from a greater range of thinkers, methods and ideas.

What was the purpose of our conference on Decolonising Education towards academic freedom in Pluriversality?

The decolonising education movement at Sussex was started as a result of students and staff identifying a  lack of diversity in the curriculum, staff and teaching practices. Researchers in the school of Global Studies and the student society I Too Am Sussex documented experiences of  racism, sexism, and other discrimination resulting from the structures of the institution. As a result of these experiences we wanted to raise questions about the practices at the university that we assume to be the norm. 

In April 2016 the Decolonising Education towards academic freedom in Pluriversality conference took place to explore ideas and address ideas of colonisation in education, interrogate the meanings of terms such as knowledge, education, and academia, and understand what changes we need to see in order to make our education system a fair and liberated one. 

The #liberatemydegree campaign seeks to carry forward the goals of the decolonizing education movement in an intersectional way. We affiliate with the NUS campaign of the same name and we champion the causes of all groups underrepresented and marginalised by current curriculum and teaching practices in mainstream western education; namely people of colour, women, LGBTQ+, disabled, and people of diverse religious groups and non western  backgrounds.

What are the main issues?

Issues explored at the conference included the way the legacy of colonialism has and continues to influence  education including:

-The curriculum is dominated by white male voices in many subjects

Many students felt that they were not represented by the curriculum because of this, and could not connect, or felt their voices were not relevant as a result.

-Human perspectives are being neutralised as ‘objective’ or ‘universal’ 

Courses which explore the history or foundations of a particular discipline for example tend to do so without explicitly recognising that they have a distinctly eurocentric focus. This becomes a problem when ideas from a particular human perspective get generalized exhausting all the knowledge in a particular field. By implication this erases the existence and importance of knowledge not included in this canon.

-Hierarchies in the institutions limit the exchange of knowledge and experience

Our school systems (in mainstream education) teach us to respond to our teachers/ lecturers at figures of authority (knowledge holders) and students as knowledge seekers. These attitudes are carried into the higher education sector. Lecturers are there to teach us and we do seek knowledge from them. However,  viewing education according to these binaries denies the presence of the students and lecturers as human beings in the space. As a result students miss opportunities to recognise themselves as agents in their own learning and bring their own identities and experience into the learning space. This results in students taking less responsibility for their own education and both students and lecturers getting less out of the process. 

-Institutions act as gatekeepers of knowledge

Conversations with community activities at the conference revealed problems with the viewpoint that the university is the ‘gatekeeper’ of knowledge. This is an idea based on elitism in the past and continuing attempts by the upper and middle classes to be the owners of the knowledge so they can control the mainstream narratives and thus maintain power. In reality, everyone holds knowledge, the ways in which we value and exchange it need to be reconsidered and equalized. 

Education is not ‘apolitical’ (but some of us act as if it is) 

Education is meant to empower, not oppress us. We are currently in a position where the silence and inaction of institutions on matters of social justice amount to complicity in perpetuating structures that continue to marginalise and oppress certain groups. The identities and political agendas of all writers, thinkers, teachers and students need to be understood and taken into account, so that students can have a full understanding of the knowledge they are presented with; one which includes the background as to where the knowledge comes from and is conscious of the power dynamics present within it. 

What changes can we make?

We need to move away from a white supremacist value system that tells us whose knowledge is valuable and how it should be shared. We want to move towards one in which the complexity and diversity of knowledge is embraced and accounted for. 

This problem cannot be resolved simply by including more underrepresented voices on the current curriculum. This has to come along with shifts in practices and attitudes to education that actively dismantle the colonial roots and history of bias that play their way into the current system. Solutions going forward will come in the form of necessarily slow but continual change.

Liberating education [is] through dialogue, the teacher of the students and the students of the teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students- teacher’

- Paulo Freire

Students can: 

-Volunteer on the Liberate My Degree campaign: use the Students’ Union as a resource to  create spaces to challenge the white curriculum, and all bias and discrimination in the university, and as a network to take action on issues of justice within and outside of Sussex. During campaign meetings we will decide based on students’ feedback which courses and practice in the university need to be changed and how to take action. 

-Join the liberation book club an online forum for suggestions of liberating reading material that contributes to empowerment and liberation. Some examples are bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde. Sign up here 

-Enroll in the #liberatemydegree Alternative education course; this course is run by students for students to experience alternative pedagogies and learning through radical agency. Your experience will determine what is explored in the course and you will come to learn from and through each other's identities and experiences. The course will explore themes of social justice, philosophy, and applying theory to lived experience. You will have the opportunity to practice facilitation skills and engage in community work. For information on how to enrol email ugeducation@sussexstudent.com 

-Challenge the rules: do not assume something is good/ useful just because it has always been done. Consider for yourself whether all the rules you are following are needed/ ethical/ and beneficial to you and other people and if not, find a way to challenge and disrupt them. If your assessment method doesn’t suit you and you can't identify its purpose you could ask your lecturer why they have set it and consult with lecturers, students, SU education officers and students reps as to how you might improve things

-Bring your own experiences into your education: what has taught you the most in life? What and who do you want to learn about and why? Which thinkers and topics are most relevant to your own experiences and what do you have to say about them?

-Politicise your education: How does what you are learning affect and contribute to the world around you? How can you use your tools to empower people from your own community or from outside the institution?

-Consider how your identity and those of others might impact your behavior in a class. How often do you tend to speak? Do you feel you have a right to a voice in the space? Do you feel you are being listened to? Are you silencing others?

Academics can:

-Join the liberatemydegree campaign and collaborate with students to facilitate institutional change within departments. 
-Consult with and listen to the views of students from marginalized groups
-Be conscious of identities within the classroom and facilitate discussion is such a way that all students feel included and not silenced by certain dominant voices. 
-Ask students for their prefered pronouns so these can be used by academics and students 
-Conduct a curriculum review of your course to identify whether it is diverse and represents a variety of perspectives or whether they perpetuate social inequalities.
-Experiment with different pedagogies so that you have a chance of reaching a wider variety of students more effectively. 
-Acknowledge current events of political importance that may affect students you teach and the dynamics of your class
-Consult with other academics in your school or department on the possibility of decolonising education in your field, exploring how and why it might be relevant to you. 

Useful terms and definitions.

Decolonise: to free a colony to become self-governing or independent

Liberation: the act or fact of gaining equal rights or full social or economic opportunities for a particular group.

Intersectional:  an approach to activism that recognises the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, which  create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage

Hierarchy: any system of persons or things ranked one above another.

Heteronormativity: noting or relating to behavior or attitudes consistent with traditional male or female gender roles and the assumption of heterosexuality as the norm:

Hegemony: aggression or expansionism by large nations in an effort to achieve world domination.


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