On Decolonizing Academia

Mariam Aiyad

On April 9, 2015, the University of Cape Town removed a statue of Cecil Rhodes from its campus. Since then, the debate about the need to “decolonize academia” has flooded the international scene. Student movements at the University of Cape Town and the University of Oxford, under the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, used their demands for the removal of statues of the British colonialist from campuses as the axis point for a widespread critique of structural inequality and racism in the university system. Rhodes, an ardent believer in British imperialism, served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in southern Africa in the late 19th century. In 1894, his administration instigated the Glen Grey Act, which pushed native Africans from their lands to make space for industrial development. Rhodes, according to his own warped imperialistic vision, was justified in forcibly removing Black people from their lands if it served “to stimulate them for labor” and change their habits. 

More recently, the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has ignited global discussions about racism and colonialism as intersecting forces. These discussions stem from a complex discourse surrounding decolonization and empire. As anti-racist outrage and post-colonial protests coalesce in tandem, universities must take stronger steps to actively participate in this discourse.

Decolonization involves identifying and challenging colonial systems, structures, and relationships. It is not “integration” or simply the token inclusion of the intellectual accomplishments by non-white peoples. Rather, it involves a paradigm shift from a culture of exclusion and denial to the making of space for other political beliefs and knowledge systems. It calls on us to think more broadly about why collective knowledge is what it is, and to alter entrenched power relations in tangible and significant ways.

Calls for a formal process to decolonize academia stem from the observation that the fundamental ideas of modern scholarship and education emerged in particular geographic areas and at particular points in history: specifically, Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time, Europe had conquered most of the world’s land territory. The development of scholarship, as we know it today, coincided with the colonial era’s expansionism, its systematic exploitation and resource extraction, and its slave trade. Modern anthropology and ethnography emerged as offshoots of natural history designed to study “human primitives.” Anthropologists often worked as agents of colonial administrations. The creation of human zoos in places like Paris’s Exposition Coloniale (1931) and the Bronx Zoo (1906) became attempts to prove the validity of scientific racism.

The growth of European empires and overseas colonies between the 15th and 20th centuries eventually gave way to the idea of a “civilizing mission.” Best remembered through Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden,” this mission tasked Europeans with cultivating and educating colonial peoples until they became enlightened and useful members of the nation-state. The amassing of immense fortunes in French, Belgian, and British port cities brought about unique opportunities to develop European infrastructure and establish new school and university systems. With higher living standards came scholarship and the intellectual drive to theorize the world.

The process of political decolonization, or the dismantling of colonial empires and the establishment of sovereign nations, took place primarily in the wake of World War II, during the 1950s and 1960s. This era saw resistance movements and wars of independence in places such as Algeria, Vietnam, and Ghana. But as Jan Jansen and Jurgen Osterhammel note, “the disappearance of empire as a political form” is only half of what decolonization means. The process of decolonization also denotes a sustained and multi-faceted pursuit toward “the end of racial hierarchy as a widely accepted political ideology and structuring principle of world order.” 

The mentalities of colonialism still hold power in academic work, through systematic biases in prescribed reading lists, teaching perspectives, and the authors cited in scholarly papers. Many have argued that the syllabus itself can be an instrument of colonialism by acting as a channel for censorship. Professor Chantelle Wilson from Bryn Mawr College has emphasized the importance of decolonizing academic curricula. “Race is so ingrained in the founding of the country and the way it operated that it is present in education as well,” explained Wilson in an April 2021 Newsweek interview. 

The university curricula will not decolonize itself. It is not something that happens overnight, it requires a sustained and serious commitment as well as ownership by all members of the university—faculty and students, white and non-white. 

The decolonizing movement asks us also to look at university infrastructure. As a starting point, what types of students, from what backgrounds, go to university? Which students are awarded research fellowships? Which researchers ultimately receive tenure? Which issues receive research funding? And which issues always have to be studied on the margins of academia? 

The decolonize movement does not call for erasing Western scholarship or concepts of knowledge. On the contrary, the movement advocates for more critical analyses and contextualization of the Western scholarly canon. We must understand this canon as situated, as a product of specific places and experiences, and as providing operational categories that continue to form the reality we live in. However, in a similar sense, we are also not interested in romanticizing non-Western views or perspectives. A decolonized academy is about an analytical study of the cultural and historical assumptions that form the basis of scholarship, and how marginalized perspectives should be included in the advancement of academic knowledge.

The legacy of the colonial era in academia must be confronted both by complementing existing perspectives with non-Western models, but also, and more vitally, by establishing productive ways of countering the academy’s fundamentally Eurocentric premises. Without a systematic attempt to decolonize academia, we will miss out on important perspectives, the findings we are making, the conclusions we are drawing – about the causes of conflict, the relationship between inequality and war, and the factors that create social exclusion and the Other – will be incomplete.

Image: Protesting the Murder of George Floyd, Washington, DC on June 6, 2020. Source: Ted Eytan, Flickr (modified by Mariam Aiyad).

Mariam Aiyad is an M.A. student at Georgetown University studying Global, International, and Comparative History. Her research interests include twentieth century resistance, protest, and culture.

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