Decolonising education

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The world needs to “move on” from slavery and colonialism, David Cameron declared during his visit to Jamaica earlier this year. He went on to casually dismiss demands for either reparations or even an apology for the systematic kidnapping and enslavement of Africans which laid the basis of both the wealth of his own country and the poverty of the nation hosting him. What he meant by “move on”, of course, was simple: forget it ever happened and ignore its continuing legacy.

Last week, in Oxford, a demonstration of around 200 students were also demanding that Britain ‘move on’ from its colonial past – not by forgetting about it, but precisely the opposite – by acknowledging the damage done and atoning for it. The Rhodes Must Fall movement began in South Africa last year, demanding an end to the veneration of colonial murderers like Cecil Rhodes, but has since spread to Oxford.

Rhodes’ statue at Cape Town University was eventually removed this year after protests, and the Oxford campaign hopes to repeat the success in Britain. Cecil Rhodes was the archetypal British imperialist – a tyrannical stealer of land, ruthless exploiter of labour and rabid butcher of men, women and children. By the 1890s, he had conquered around one million square miles of territory in Africa and laid waste to its inhabitants, massacred all those who stood in his way and forcing many of the rest into the living graves that were his company’s diamond mines.

His policies laid the basis for what became the apartheid system, as he forced Africans into reserves, introduced segregation and forced labour, and systematically excluded Africans from voting. The question is not so much why there is a campaign to have his statue removed but why on earth it is still there. It says a lot about just how little Britain has ‘moved on’ from its imperial past when the leader of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, Robert Mugabe, is one of the most demonised figures in the British media – whilst the architect of that country’s subjugation, Cecil Rhodes, remains a ubiquitous and venerated presence in Britain’s most hallowed academic institution.

But the campaign is about much more than statues; what they stand for is something much greater: the transformation of the Oxford in its physical and intellectual spaces, its colleges and its curricula. Indeed, Rhodes Must Fall is part of a much broader global movement that has emerged in recent years, based around the demand to decolonise academia. Western academia is in particular in urgent need of a decolonising process as it so clearly continues to reproduce Eurocentric fallacies and omissions in manifold ways.

One way is through its erasure of the crime of colonialism; that is, its tendency to overlook or deem as irrelevant – the sheer scale of human suffering caused by European colonialism. Sandew Hira notes how the typical figure given for enslaved Africans in Western histories is around 12 million. But this figure neglects both those killed in the process of capture in Africa, and those enslaved at birth in the Americas. Little of this is recognised in mainstream Western historical accounts of the rise of Europe, which still tend to treat colonialism either as a mixed blessing for the colonised that is, effectively an act of benevolence – for the colonising powers. 

But it is not only the crimes of empire that are erased in Western academia – so too is the non-European contribution to European civilisation itself. Blaut rightly analyzed, ‘Greater Europe’ is still depicted by the majority of European historians as “the perpetual fountainhead of history”.  The supposed knowledge about the non-European world, on which some ideas are based, was, of course, produced in the process of colonialism, reflecting the biases – and interests – of the coloniser.

As Blaut writes, “the plain fact is that theories constructed from this information – and this includes the great bulk of 19th century anthropological, geographic, and politico-economic theories about non-Europeans – are systematically distorted, as not only were they based on information reflecting the bias of the colonialists who collected it, but also involved “shaping knowledge into theories that would prove useful for colonialism.”  

John Hobson has outlined in great detail that “ far from being the passive recipient of Western innovation, Africa and Asia largely provided the technological and institutional ‘portfolios’ that enabled both the European industrial revolution and the ‘voyages of discovery’ that preceded it. Vasco Da Gama’s travel round the Cape, for example, was not the unprecedented triumph it is still depicted as in Eurocentric history; in fact the voyage had already been accomplished 20-50 years earlier by the Islamic navigator Ahmad ibn-Majid, whilst, Indians and Chinese had all made it across to the Cape many decades before Da Gama”.

Non-European societies had a major influence on all the major turning points in European history. Again it is not only history that continues to reproduce colonial theories; Eurocentrism thoroughly permeates fields such as International Relations as well: International relations theories do not so much explain international politics in an objective, positivist and universalist manner but seeks, rather, to parochially celebrate and defend or promote the West as the proactive subject of, and as the highest or ideal normative referent in world politics. 

Charles Mills points out that there is a “uniformity of opinion” on the inferiority of non-Europeans amongst pretty much all major European thinkers from the Enlightenment onwards:  For example, Hume, who denies that any race other than the white one has produced a civilisation and the historicist Hegel, who denies that Africa has any history and suggests that blacks were morally improved through being enslaved!

Underlying all of this is what decolonial scholar Grosfoguel calls “epistemic racism” which afforded the privileged Western subject, a ‘God-s eye’ universal view of the world, superior to all other epistemologies. Western epistemology has, by sheer force of arms, been able to impose itself on the rest of the world, presenting itself as the one true and valid system of knowledge production. And academia still bears the birthmarks of its colonial genesis and this is the case to such an extent that supposedly “universal knowledge” is still based on the socio-historical experience of just five countries – Italy, Germany, Britain, France and the USA,. Knowledge produced in all other parts of the world is inferiorised.

Oxford was, and is, central to both this inferiorisation of non-European knowledge, and the conquests and exterminations that allowed this process to develop. Ciaran Walsh, radical Labour historian , had this to say about Oxford university’s role in colonialism: “The ideologues who justified the creation of the British empire came from Oxford, and generations of imperial administrators were educated at Oxford under the banner of the civilising mission.

Imperialism and capital accumulation have been co-emergent in the modern era and Oxford played a key role in this whole process in Britain and globally.” And Oxford continues to produce the modern-day Rhodes’ who are his worthy successors in British colonial barbarism in Africa and beyond.

Oxford graduate, Tony Blair, was involved in plans to follow directly in Rhodes’ footsteps and invade Zimbabwe; Likewise, David Cameron, a graduate of Brasenose College, did his bit to stymie African development; his blitzkrieg destruction of  Libya paved the way for a bloodbath that has already enveloped Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria and continues to grow.

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