“Decolonised” Education – Semantic Obscenity and Wrecking Ball of Higher Learning

2016-10-05 06:55

There are some truisms about education.

True higher education and real knowledge are universally focused and know no boundaries; they broaden the mind and cultivate wisdom. They also interrogate the world and push back horizons, casting aside prejudices, dogmas and ignorance.

Knowledge imparted for free is a gift and knowledge for which payment is made is an investment; it is up to the recipient to decide how to use it.

A reverence for and thirst after knowledge is widely acknowledged in many cultures as a passport for personal success and societal advancement. In such cultures, people tend to seek out and absorb knowledge enthusiastically and unconditionally. In nations with a strong learning ethic, knowledge and education are recognized as the bedrock for accumulating human intellectual capital, without which success in the modern world is increasingly improbable.

Knowledge has immeasurable value and accessibility to education is a privilege little known to our forebears. We live in a very special era for the intellectually empowered and gifted.

It seems however that South Africa is unraveling as an exception to these laudable values. Closely associated with the “Fees Must Fall” at our universities is an initiative to “decolonize” (obviously code for indigenize) tertiary education amidst the violence and destruction, arson and disruption to the efforts of conscientious students striving to qualify after years of work.

This is a red flag to our national intellect and learning culture.

It is tragic that certain elements in our universities reject the knowledge on offer on account of either the identity of people presenting it or on account of the race or ethnicity of the purveyor not being to their liking.

During a march at UCT, News 24’s Jenni Evans asked for an explanation of “decolonized” education, which is a much trumpeted demand among radical elements, because she wanted to know what the attraction was. To read her report, you can go to http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/what-is-decolonised-education-20160925.

Alternatively you can use my précis – which attempts to summarise it in a few bullet points as follows:

• It alleges that current curriculums “dehumanize” black students.

• We are told there is no point in being educated by white people; they must be black because Afrocentric education is required. “Eurocentric” tuition is inappropriate since African thought processes get “undermined”.

“Decolonization” of education is therefore what is needed.

• We learn, further, that education is “not neutral” but serves particular interests.

Thus ''Eurocentrism does not serve black interests culturally, socially or economically. It “does not resolve the issues of Africa.''

And then finally - an exhortation: “For decolonised education to be introduced, the existing system must be overthrown and the people it is supposed to serve must define it for themselves.”

There is obviously no prospect of debate or rational dialogue with such a mindset. Minds have been made up and – judging from the rhetoric - not particularly talented, insightful or intuitive minds at that.

They are minds that conjure up ideologies, dogmas and counter intellectual ideas which – in the indulgent and laissez faire environment of a liberal institution such as UCT – have become coercive and abusive of others. The facts of history and the evolution of our imperfect society are reduced to “one liners” that not only close their eyes to a balance of views, but invoke fictional notions.

Strong university leadership would have helped, but is conspicuous only by its absence. More is the pity because there would have been a number of reasonable responses to such so-called “demands”.

Consider some of the more obvious responses to these issues –

• To the suggestion that the university curriculum “dehumanizes black students”.

The obvious response would be that if challenging students intellectually dehumanizes them, their preparation for tertiary education has been inadequate. The remedy would be to interrogate preparatory levels of education rather than blame the tertiary sector.

University bashing misses the whole point.

The chickens from basic state education are coming home to roost.

• To the notion of “blacks should only be instructed by blacks in order to promote Afrocentric education to cease undermining African thought processes”, the rational response is simple.

To “decolonize” tertiary education in this way would simply stall education in its tracks because there is little of value to substitute it with! Southern Africa is noted for neither its pre-colonial rich indigenous intellectual heritage nor any ground breaking home grown scientific research of an indigenous nature.

This notion insults black academics who cope very well in an eclectic and all embracing intellectual environment.

• To the allegation that Eurocentric education is “not neutral, it serves particular interests” and “fails to serve black interests culturally, socially or economically” the rational response would be to point out that true higher education has no borders and is non-parochial. It is not a culturally driven notion, but explorative and expansive in nature.

To claim a pay-off for one or another ethnicity from intellectual inquiry emasculates the tenets of tertiary education. If it was to yield to such pressures, it would cease to be (good) higher education.

It seems to me that the higher education paradigm is poorly understood by the “decolonize education” constituency. It is clearly way over their heads.


In the global context, why is it that talented youths from high achieving cultures like South Korea, Thailand, Viet Nam, Singapore and China flock to US and European Universities? Why do they embrace “Eurocentric” education?

The answer is simple. It is because they want to get ahead - and it works.

I guess that we should take heart from the fact that such-pie-in-the-sky tuition as “decolonized education” would have to be available for free – serving as another nail in its coffin. For who would pay for it? Education does not come for free – even faux education.

So what is the prognosis for South African tertiary education? That is a simple call – and already happening.

It will develop in three directions.

Serious students will step aside from the “varsity” system as currently defined. Their options will include

• overseas university tuition,

• private universities – as yet in embryo in the RSA – and

• online tuition. There is already major international growth in this sector.

Online university education has access to some of the best international talent and in certain instances, access to accreditation from Ivy League universities for successful students.

All of which begs the same old questions. How many more institutions do we in South Africa need to trash (think SAA, Telkom, Post office, state education, water management, SABC and all the rest) before we recognise the value of what we once had?

Tertiary education is fast becoming a mirror of the entire nation and reminds me of the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” –

“Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you've got

Till it's gone?

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot”

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