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Protesters gather for an Invasion Day Rally in Redfern on January 26, 2018 in Sydney. Image: Getty Images

Understanding the USC academics who want to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum

Who Put the Post in Postcolonial?”

A 1998 review bearing this title was published in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. Its author, Chadwick Allen, an American English professor, begins by interrogating the various scholarly iterations of the term ‘postcolonial’. There’s the one word variety. Then there’s the hyphenated version (post-colonial), the bracketed one ((post)colonial), and a different word altogether (paracolonial). Allen contends that they signify confusion over the term’s meaning: are we really sure we have culturally moved beyond colonial times?

Twenty years on, Catherine Manathunga remains doubtful. So sceptical is the professor of education research at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) that she wishes for the ‘decolonisation’ of university curricula. This will involve deconstructing Western-centric material, as well as intentionally highlighting indigenous voices. A simplistic example of this is the debate around Australia Day (or, as some refer to it, Invasion Day). The Western narrative is one of colonisation, whereas the indigenous one is about invasion. The truth is that it is both, at once, depending on the perspective taken.

Nowhere is colonisation more stark than in South Africa. In Bloemfontein and Johannesburg to deliver seminars earlier this month, Manathunga provided context: “Issues of decolonising the curriculum are absolutely front and centre in current student politics and university management concern in South Africa, because of the the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall campaigns. There are ongoing student protests that are happening in many universities in South Africa.

“The issue of decolonising the curriculum and valuing knowledge from the Global South, particularly from African sources of knowledge, is a really hot topic there in ways that I don’t think it is in Australia, unfortunately.

“A lot of my colleagues and I have been making arguments about the importance of decolonising the university curriculum in the Australia context for many decades.

“By decolonising the curriculum, we’re talking about, first of all, inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge. But we’re also talking about including diverse cultural knowledge; the different communities that make up Australian society – not at all the kind of Anglo-Celtic society that a lot of policy developers continue to imagine it is.”

Particularly in the sciences but also in the humanities, she says Western knowledge continues to be privileged. “Raewyn Connell made the very strong argument that neocolonial operations of power continue to exist, where the North gets to propose knowledge and theory, and the South gets to be the giant laboratory, where Northern (European or North American) theories and knowledge are tested and applied.

“So it’s a very unequal geopolitical reality in terms of knowledge that’s supported by the university curriculum.”

That’s why she was dismayed when the idea for the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation was first floated. “The idea that our current universities aren’t studying Western knowledge is an absolute fallacy,” she said. “Our universities are fundamentally based on Western knowledge. We have only made small inroads into understanding other civilizations, since the 1970s.”

To decolonise, first deconstruct

In South Africa, some students are calling for the full-scale dismantling of Western thought in universities. Manathunga opposes this. “While I understand the anger behind these calls, they do not allow us to identify how colonial power has occurred,” she said. “We actually need to deconstruct the Western canon rather than to remove it, in order to understand the ways in which unjust conditions, which continue into the present, have been created, in terms of what knowledge is valued and what knowledge isn’t valued.

“Unless we do this, the effects of it remain unresolved.”

What are its effects? According to Manathunga, a significant one is a ‘deficit discourse’, whereby the weaknesses, rather the strengths of a minority culture are emphasised. An Australian example of this is the ‘gap’ discourse around indigenous Australians. “My approach is to regard indigenous culture as a fundamental creative resource that can be respectfully drawn upon in education,” she informed. To the end, she is co-leading a new Transcultural and Indigenous Pedagogies Research Group at USC, where her co-director, Associate Professor Maria Raciti, is an Kalkadoon-Thaniquith/Bwgcolman Aboriginal woman.

“I think if we don’t address the status quo then we end up perpetuating the unequal conditions that exist in schools and in health and across a whole range of social indicators. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that.”

Then listen deeply

It’s not enough to deconstruct curricula, Manathuga avows; they must be populated with indigenous, Southern and Eastern people’s views, culture and scholarship. One way of doing this is to truly listen to these people. In this regard, the Thai proverb, ‘We have two ears, but only one mouth’, which Manathunga first heard from a Thai student, applies. She encourages ‘deep listening’ – ‘listening to learn’ – among students and academics. This notion is also present in indigenous culture, where it is known as ‘Dadirri’. “Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr says that Dadirri is about listening from the heart … listening to nature,” Manathunga said.

She gave an example of how it can be implemented in applied research: it was used by social workers and academics to help indigenous former sportsmen to transition to post-sport careers. Another example of how Dadirri can benefit society – not just indigenous people – and can benefit in myriad ways, is provided by Patrick Nunn. A professor of geography and associate director of the Sustainability Research Centre at USC, his book, The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World, lends evidence to the theory that 7,000-year-old indigenous oral stories about rising sea waters and environmental change over centuries has a scientific basis. “That’s a valuing of oral history traditions … in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Manathunga said.

Then there’s ‘critical whiteness studies’, “where people investigate how whiteness creates privileges”, across subject matters, she advised. An example of this is investigating how whiteness advantages people in the workplace. As well as recommending this is embedded in classes, she is practising it herself. “I’m a privileged white woman. I think that means I have a special responsibility to promote decolonisation…,” she said.

Decolonisation can also be applied in day-to-day conversation, by “moving beyond essentialist ideas of identity”, Manathunga provided. For instance, dichotomies between ethnicities (black/white, for example), need not be applied. Instead, multifaceted identities can be acknowledged. Manathunga embodies this: she is Irish-Australian, with familial ties to Sri Lankan, Colombian and First Nations American cultures.

Finally, Global South-South dialogue and conviviality – “…a dialogue between knowledge systems” – can be encouraged.

Manathunga drew upon, among others, African, indigenous and gender studies theorists in developing these decolonisation strategies. Now, along with her colleagues, she hopes others will meaningfully listen.

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One comment

  1. One problem I have with the decolonization narrative is that it is predicated on the badness of colonality and its willingness only to take a critical view on the group it classes as oppressors. It attempts to align only negative power usage with colonisation and filters out any mention of benefits it has brought. It seeks to demonstrate uncritically accept the virtues of the minority narratives while portraying only the oppressions of the colonisers, whites, males, able bodied, etc. It promotes its approach as giving new voices to the voiceless but portrays only the negative qualities of the group it narrates as the oppressor. This can be seen very clearly as it attempts to shut down the Western civilization course and portray it as potentially toxic rather than saying – yes, all voices are welcome. It promotes diversity of identity recognition but equally promotes stereotyping according to skin colour, lineage, and ethnicity. Double standards abound. If we want to respect true diversity, the end point is the individual, who has any number of combinations of identities and mixes of social experiences, both privileged and oppressed, and which is impossible to tell simply by judging based by the stereotype of race, gender, etc.

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