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Decolonize your education

Scholarship should be an anti-imperial force

How is the logic of imperialism still present in our university structures?
If this question lost you, let’s back up.

Empire, explains Roland Sintos Coloma of the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies of Education, manifests itself on two levels. “One is the imposition of Global North or metropolitan ontologies, epistemologies, materials, and meanings,” he said in an interview with The Daily. “The second would be the use or the control and the extraction of Global South resources, labours, and bodies for Global North use and desire.”

“For me those two are intertwined at present, and these two processes get operationalized through political, economical, socio-cultural techniques, that include the government, media, business, and education,” Coloma added.

In academia, the assumptions we work off of too often privilege a Western perspective, but they seem so basic to us that they go unquestioned. The fact that we engage with the category of empire relatively little in most fields of study is already indicative of fundamental problems with the way we learn.

As a result, our lines of questioning often do not taking into account the legacy of European and American colonial domination that has shaped relations between the Global North and South, as well as relations between disenfranchised peoples and elites within settler nations like Canada and the U.S. In other words, we’re ignoring factors that have profoundly influenced and continue to influence people’s lives.

“It’s some kind of amnesia – but I think it’s also an abdication to our responsibility to really contextualize our field in our work as academics,” Coloma remarked.

A number of student groups already function on this kind of understanding – groups like the Community-University Research Exchange, for instance, include in their mandate the operating principle that “the University is an institution which maintains systems of privilege and oppression around race, class, and neocolonialism.”

The lack of a postcolonial studies department at any Canadian university – or, perhaps more disconcerting, the lack of indigenous studies departments at many Canadian universities, including McGill – are indicators of this problem.

But while the process has been lengthy, interest in developing an indigenous studies program at McGill has been building steadily, according to McGill professor T’hohahoken Michael Doxtater, director of the Faculty of Education’s Indigenous Studies in Educational Learning and Teaching.

He pointed to networks of scholars and students forming in different departments as indicators that we may be moving toward having this kind of program. “We don’t really need to reinvent anything here,” Doxtater explained. “There are models that exist, that function quite well for years – some of these models are appropriate for a university like McGill, with so many varied interests.”

Doxtater argues in his article “Indigenous Knowledge in the Decolonial Era” that we’ve moved out of the colonial and postcolonial eras into the decolonial era.

The indigenous studies that Doxtater envisions makes connections between a number of anti-imperialist struggles over the past 15 years, as well as in a more historical context. “Since the break-up of the Soviet Union the whole era has been about decolonizing societies – Hong Kong, South Africa, the Sudan…all kinds of examples in the world where the colonizers leave – and then what? You have a lot of social problems, political problems,” he explained. Such a program would emphasize putting indigenous scholars at the forefront of the discourse.

The 21st century university should be a site of decolonization.

Coloma sees students and professors being able to realize this goal in a number of ways – first, to bring analysis of their complicity in imperial and colonial projects to fields like political science and economics, even to “business schools and schools of public health, where this sort of analysis is definitely needed.”

Second, we need “to have more courses that are very explicit about addressing colonialism and imperialism but also have it be integrated in existing courses,” he said. “And three, to have a continuous engagement by the University with communities at large – with diasporic communities, within Canada, but also being mindful with our relationships abroad.”

Decolonial scholarship, Doxtater said, is “much more inclusive and much more humanity-based, rather than Others talking about Others…. In the past people have pretty much ignored our scholars. It’s time we’re included in the discourse.”