Unbundling the colonial university

05 January 2015

Assoc Prof Kathy Luckett
Faculty of Humanities' Education Development Unit

UCT, like the majority of universities in the Global South, was established during the colonial era, initially to serve the needs and interests of the colonial powers and settler societies.

Following political transition, there is usually a cultural lag, particularly in institutions of civil society such as universities. Thus in postcolonial societies, the cultural hegemony of the ex-colonial powers persists - for example through the use of the colonial languages as the languages of the library, lectures and of the canon. Of course, in our case, the 'imperialism of English' is reinforced by its expansion as the language of globalisation.

Overcoming colonisation
The Rhodes Must Fall movement has called for the 'decolonising' of the university. This entails recovering the link between colonialism and modernity - remembering the violence of colonialism, the exploitation of extractive settler economies, the disfigurement of African communities and culture - all of which may be concealed by the grand narrative of development and modernisation.

Further, the modernisation narrative tends to displace responsibility for the 'colonial wound' onto the previously colonised - in this case black students at a historically white elite South African university - who are structurally and culturally positioned as in need of development. The problem is captured in this quote:

Development is a story with which we clothe ourselves. It is a technique for setting ... a distance between oneself and another, that is of categorising the other as a less mature version of oneself. It says to the other that here is a path which we share and on which I am ahead: "I am your future: you will become (like) me". (Morss, 1993 cited in Webb 1996:33)

Instead, the colonised university should reflect on the extent to which it itself may be in need of development in order to properly recognise and affirm the heritages, cultures and languages of all its students.

Developing without stigmatising
The problem of setting out to 'develop' other people is particularly acute in education development programmes. Unfortunately, the modernising developmental state in South Africa has co-opted education development as a resource for redress and for improving institutional efficiency (measured by graduation rates, disaggregated into the old apartheid racialised group categories).

The funding and reporting requirements for education development programmes are such that only black students can be deemed in need of these, and they have to be placed in separate courses with distinct course codes.

All of this often leads to stigmatisation and resentment and is not conducive to creating a positive learning environment. I think that one issue that UCT needs to address urgently is the structure and compulsory nature of these programmes so that they don't position some students as deficient and in need of development.

For example, in the humanities, if some students are required to take extra courses in English language proficiency and academic literacy, then those who are proficient in English should be required to learn at least communicative competence in an African language.

Decolonising the curriculum
This [curriculum reform] is a complex topic because knowledge forms are very different. For example, the subjectivity of the knower is deliberately restrained in knowledge production in the natural and applied sciences, whereas in the humanities and social sciences, the context and social relations of knowledge production are implicated to varying degrees.

In other words, who you are does matter - and this is likely to be even more pronounced in the performing and creative arts. This means that the issue of 'decolonising the curriculum' is more pertinent for the south side than for the north side of campus.

However, all academics, particularly in the formative degrees, wield the power to select and pedagogise knowledge from the research field into their curricula. Lecturers are responsible for designing the curricula they teach and for assessing whether students have achieved the levels of academic performance demanded by their curricula.

When constructing a curriculum, a lecturer not only makes selections of content from their discipline, but also holds in mind an 'imaginary student' for whom the curriculum is intended. If we are to reform the curriculum, it is crucial to interrogate exactly who the 'imaginary students' are that we hold in our minds.

We need to be able to offer a curriculum that firstly recognises where we are and who our students are; that interrogates and deconstructs the colonial canon and the history of the disciplines, and that, in addition, empowers our students to hold their own in global conversations. We should begin by listening to students and engaging with their ideas, energies and imaginations on what a transformed curriculum might look like.

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Monday Monthly

Volume 34 Edition 04

25 May 2015

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