Public Intellectual Essay
The introduction of critical race theory and other anti-colonial approaches to academic discourse has obscured the fact that higher education itself remains embedded in colonial institutions and structures. Higher education is a vestige of colonial means of psychological and social control. The political implications of colonialism in higher education include the perpetuation of hegemony, the suppression and subordination of alternative epistemologies, the ongoing political dominion over what constitutes knowledge, and the use of higher education to promote structures and institutions that serve the dominant culture. Although often an unconscious process, the ways colonial mentalities and processes remain entrenched in higher education are directly harmful to individual students and to society as a whole. Colonialism in higher education promotes a monolithic worldview that inhibits critical inquiry and creative solutions to global problems. By controlling how knowledge is defined, institutes of colonialist higher learning prevent alternative views and inhibit the flourishing of a genuinely meaningful academic curriculum as well as an evidence-based pedagogical practice. Colonialism in higher education is bad for everyone; it inhibits learning, limits the scope and depth of discursive practices, and prevents the formation of genuine community partnerships that can promote social justice.
In fact, the political often becomes personal with direct impacts on individual learners. â€œEducation systems and processes, as well as ideas about what counts as education, have been entrenched in the reproduction of colonial ways of knowing which concomitantly limit possibilities for many learners,â€ (Dei, 2012, p. 103). The impact on individual learners extends to physical and mental health outcomes too, exacerbating health disparities. Epistemological data that shows that aboriginal peoples suffer from lower life expectancy, elevated morbidity, elevated suicide rates, higher rates of many diseases, and higher rates of poverty, all of which are empirically linked to â€œthe forced acculturation imposed on Aboriginal peoples,â€ (Bourassa, McKay-McNabb & Hampton, n.d., p. 23). Therefore, colonialism in higher education is categorically unethical.
Colonialism refers to the imposition of power and the creation of political, social, and economic hierarchies. In higher education, colonialism manifests physically through the control over the physical space of the academic institution, symbolically via the control over information, knowledge, curriculum, and pedagogy, and psychologically. The term â€œthe colonial wallâ€ refers to the â€œpsychological barrier designed to control, confine, and contain a nation by internalized colonialist subjugation or colonizer domination,â€ (St. Germain, 2003, p. iii). Higher education erects psychological barriers that serve as colonial walls between individual students, between faculty and students, and also between the educational institution and the greater community it is supposed to serve. Colonialist worldviews affects research questions, research designs, and research methods. Indigenous people are systematically barred from controlling discourse, or even defining or operationalizing their own terms. Disallowing for self-definition or self-determination, colonialism in higher education therefore perpetuates power inequities beyond the walls of the institution, reverberating throughout society. Indigenous people are the subjects or objects of research and thereby objectified, as opposed to being the lead researchers who frame new paradigms, evolving theory, and participate in the creation of new knowledge with real world applications. Critical race theory and anti-colonial rhetoric is insufficient for promoting egalitarianism in higher education. Anti-colonial discursive practices can be hegemonic, too, because the indigenous perspective â€œcannot be addressed within the frames of ethnic or minority diversity, civil rights, or human rights,â€ (Champagne, 2014, p. 99). For higher education to become truly decolonized, indigenous voices, bodies of knowledge, and ways of knowing need to be woven into the fabric of academia.
Higher education wears a mask. Pretending to champion the rights of indigenous peoples, higher education as it is practiced around the world is commonly considered to be a bastion of critical inquiry. Purporting to be liberal and progressive, high education promotes heterogeneous voices and discursive practices that challenge hegemonies based on race, class, and gender. Critical race theory and intersectionality dominate the discourse in higher education, which is fine, but white guilt only perpetuates the belief that institutions of higher learning–and the entire process of academic inquiry–are inherently anti-colonial or simply apolitical. The myth that higher education bears no stamp of colonialism now clouds generations of subtle tyranny: the ways that academia has in the past promoted racist discourse, the most notable being social Darwinism.
Now that critical race theory has replaced social Darwinism, academics feel safe and secure in their ivory towers. From the windows of those ivory towers, researchers and academics can shout out their sympathy with indigenous people, with women of color. Aligned with anti-colonial sentiments, academics can too easily ignore the fact that their very position within the academic institution, and the institution of higher learning itself and all it represents, has very real political consequences. The curriculum in higher education continues to be Euro-centric, no matter how many womenâ€™s studies or indigenous studies courses creep into the course content. Therefore, the ivory towers form what some call a â€œcolonial wall,â€ which are both actual physical and also social structures, barriers that are designed to control, dominate, contain, and delimit subjugated peoples (St. Germain, 2003). How knowledge is constructed, how it is collected, analyzed, and interpreted: all reflects specific worldviews. Likewise, what constitutes â€œknowledgeâ€ is not something up for debate in academia. Knowledge is confined to dominant culture ideals, and is not meaningful unless it feeds into dominant culture ethos, dominant culture economic goals, and dominant culture politics.
We should celebrate the great strides that have been made in higher education, especially with regards to the integration of alternative epistemologies and courses that do genuinely challenge and even subvert the hegemonic worldview. However, higher education still has a long way to go before it ceases to reflect and perpetuate inequities. Critical race theory is simply not enough. Indigenous perspectives, goals, needs, and ways of knowing simply â€œcannot be addressed within the frames of ethnic or minority diversity, civil rights, or human rights,â€ (Champagne, 2014, p. 99). The time has come to democratize knowledge, and to cease allowing universities to be institutions of assimilation, enculturation, and socialization. Indigenous people are not the subjects of research ripe for the anthropologist to pick apart and objectify; indigenous people need to assert ways of knowing that truly expand minds: which should be the goal of education. When considering the issue of colonization in higher education, the real question is: what is the purpose of higher education? Is higher education designed to teach students technical or vocational skills that enable them to participate in the existing global market economy, or is higher education designed to teach ways of knowing and critical inquiry?
Research shows that the impact of a colonialist method of higher education has deleterious effects on individual students and on whole communities. Individual learners are inhibited, prevented from developing their full potential, stymied from reaching opportunities for applied knowledge that could transform socio-political realities around the world. In fact, epidemiologists are starting to study the adverse effects of colonialism in higher education. Public health data shows that the â€œforced acculturation imposed on Aboriginal peoplesâ€ around the world, through European higher learning institutions, contributes to the well-known health disparities for indigenous peoples (Bourassa, McKay-McNabb & Hampton, n.d., p. 23). Those health disparities include lower life expectancy, elevated morbidity, elevated suicide rates, and higher rates of many diseases. Viewed in light of real, measurable outcomes, colonialism in higher education can be construed as being categorically unethical.
Colonialism in higher education is bad for everyone. Colonialism in higher education perpetuates the â€œdichotomies between primitivism and modernity,â€ (Nakata, Nakata, Keech, et al., 2012, p. 121). Colonialism in higher education subordinates indigenous knowledge and epistemologies (Sium, Desai & Ritskes, 2012). Colonialism in higher education enables unwarranted controls over how knowledge is defined, how curricula are designed.
What can we do to change higher education? The answer is of course, never easy. Transforming higher education requires more than just an antagonistic attitude (which is often necessary to provoke dialogue and demand change) and lip service paid to how colonialism harms indigenous people (which it does). Right now, you and I are having a conversation as you read this opinion article. By paying attention, you are beginning to see the cracks in the walls of higher education, flaws in the mask academia wears. The best way forward is through continued dialogue, whether one-on-one or in public forums. Likewise, the more higher education welcomes collaborative partnerships, community-based direct action, and actual, tangible solutions to problems, the more useful it will be. Research can become less hegemonic, damaging, and oppressive: academia can be decolonized in positive, constructive ways that promote democracy and social justice.
Bourassa, C., McKay-McNabb & Hampton, M. (n.d.). Racism, sexism, and colonialism. Canadian Womenâ€™s Studies 24(1): 23-30.
Champagne, D.W. (2014). Indigenous higher education. In: Jacob W., Cheng S., Porter M. (eds) Indigenous Education. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 99-108.
Dei, G.S. (2012). Indigenous anti-colonial knowledge as â€˜heritage knowledgeâ€™ for promoting Black/African education in diasporic contexts. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 102-119.
Nakata, N.M., Nakata, V., Keech, S. et al. (2012). Decolonial goals and pedagogies for indigenous studies. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 120-140.
Pratt, Y.P., Louie, D.W., Hanson, A.J., et al. (2018). Indigenous education and decolonization. Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Education. http://education.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-240
Sium, A., Desai, D. & Ritskes, E. (2012). Towards the â€˜tangible unknownâ€™: decolonization and the indigenous future. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1-13.
St. Germain, B. (2003). Behind the colonial wall. https://dspace.library.uvic.ca:8443/bitstream/handle/1828/5204/St_Germain_Brenda_MSW_2014.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
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