7 Decolonization

Traditionally, the term “decolonization” referred to political independence from a colonial power. The American Revolution of 1776 against Great Britain is an outstanding example of that sort of decolonization. Later political decolonizers around the world, like Simón Bolívar in South America, were inspired by the United States example. More recent understandings of “decolonization”, at least by some authors, characterize the United States as a colonizing imperial power in its own right, a power that must be resisted in the name of liberation (Freire 1970, 1973, 2004; hooks 1994; Kendi, 2014). These “colonial” practices of the United States encompass more than just the physical conquest of overseas territory. More currently, United States “imperialism” is seen through economic and cultural lenses as well. Globalizing U.S.-based corporations, or U.S.-produced films or television, or U.S. consumer products in general, are all suspected of hegemonic purpose when exported around the world. For this reason, pushback against the perceived imperialism of U.S. is found in places such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Other nations, the People’s Republic of China being a noteworthy example, have a more complex relationship to U.S. economic and cultural production, selectivity adopting or even co-producing some of it, while rejecting other elements. The Maoist Cultural Revolution in China of the 1960s had previously attempted comprehensive decolonization across all economic, social, and cultural dimensions. The generally disastrous impact of this Cultural Revolution on Chinese power and prosperity induced later Chinese leadership to embrace a more nuanced approach to the “hegemonic” productions of the U.S. Today, on the level of great power politics, the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China are clearly rivals. On every other level – it’s complicated. So “decolonization” is far from straightforward when the term gets stretched beyond the simple idea of expelling a foreign occupying power.

Even more complexity arises when “decolonization” is applied to cultural movements within the U.S. itself. Let us consider the example of George Washington. Washington owned slaves. If statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are coming down in the name of antiracism, can statues of George Washington still remain standing? Moreover, Washington purchased property vacated by the forced expulsion of the Delaware, Shawnee and Mingo tribes (Ferguson, 2011, 116). This followed a youthful career of active combat against Native Americans in the French and Indian War. Clearly, George Washington was no antiracist by contemporary standards. So how should we view Washington now? Hero of the decolonizing battle against the British Empire? Or villain of the racist, colonizing project of U.S. territorial expansion? Current culture wars in U.S. media essentially derive from picking one side or the other in this sort of controversy, generating an abundance of emotional heat, but a few mere slivers of intelligible light. Our approach here will prefer to recenter the discussion of “decolonization” and similar polarized and polarizing terminology in what we hope are more fruitful and constructive ways. Rather than adopting one definition or the other of a term like “decolonization”, we leave it to the reader to use such terms as the reader will. We are not so much interested in definitions. Rather, we hope to clarify substantive issues that lie beneath any such definitions, terminology or conceptualizations.

From an educational standpoint, philosopher Jürgen Habermas offers an unusual and potentially helpful interpretation of the idea of “decolonization”. Habermas aims to save democracy through the process of “decolonizing the lifeworld” (Morrow & Torres, 2002). Habermas and his technical terms may be unfamiliar to many readers, so a brief summary will be offered here. Habermas is a German public philosopher in the critical theory tradition. Critical theory evolved from Marxism in the 20th century, striving to understand why classic Marxism failed to anticipate the lack of proletarian revolutions in Europe and the rise of totalitarians of the right (Hitler) and of the left (Stalin) respectively. What critical theory retained from classic Marxism is a general suspicion of capitalism. For Habermas, capitalism is summarized as the “system”. In his view, what the “system” strives for, in general, is to “colonize” the lifeworld. This sort of colonization is of the economic and cultural type – the system’s main colonizing weapon being advertising. For Habermas, the “lifeworld” is the private sphere of family, friends, and community in which people can speak and act with freedom. The “system” would prefer to overrun that lifeworld with incessant commercial speech, cultivating endless demand for consumer products, reducing free and non-commercialized thoughts and behaviors to the vanishing point. Most of Habermas’s work occurred before the advent of social media, but looking at current urban pedestrians glued to their cellular phones and oblivious to both people and vehicles navigating around them, one finds an appreciation for Habermas’s point of view. Some, at least, do seem systemically colonized in the extreme!

Paolo Freire was a Brazilian educational theorist of the late 20th century whose approach to educational decolonization aligns well with that of Habermas (Morrow & Torres, 2002). In classic works such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1970), Freire details how he worked with illiterate rural workers in South America to help these workers experience themselves as conscious actors with degrees of freedom to improve their own lives and to transform social systems around them. Just teaching reading to peasants in Brazil in the early 1960s had political implications, because voting rights at that time required proof of ability to read. Freire called his process, in Portuguese, conscientização, which roughly translated means consciousness raising or political awareness. A central element in both Freire’s instructional work and in his theorizing about this work was to avoid imposing ideas on his unschooled students. Freire called “experts” pushing information at passive students the “banking model” of education, and he rejected it. Instead, he took great pains to interact with students in dialogical fashion, allowing students to essentially become co-creators of the content in the class. This aligns nicely with Habermas’s project of restoring both the “lifeworld” and democracy’s “public sphere” through dialogue and person-to-person communicative relationships. Both Freire and Habermas are pushing back against “systems” in the name of freedom. In Freire’s case, the system manifested itself more as hard violence and oppression against a socio-economic underclass. In Habermas’s social context, systemic oppression was less overtly violent and exploitative of the working class (thanks to social democracy and unionism in post-war Germany). Nevertheless, Habermas, like Freire, found personal and social freedom under threat and advocated for conversational communities to re-humanize society against purely mechanistic corporate impositions (Morrow & Torres, 2002).

To summarize, the term “decolonization” has migrated from a purely political meaning of rebelling against a foreign occupying power to something more personal, cultural, and ideational in nature. Current educational discussions about “decolonizing” the curriculum lean toward this later usage. (For example, Shahjahan & Edwards (2022)). In the sort of dialogic context favored by Habermas and Freire, this makes the question of what, exactly, constitutes a “decolonized” understanding of any given subject matter deeply personal and not amenable to “expert” analysis. My “lifeworld” may be your “system”, or the other way around. At the end of the day, “lifeworld” versus “system” may boil down to power relations pure and simple. Where two human subjects are in a give-and-take conversation conducted in freedom, this in effect promotes humanization. If one side or the other is in a position to impose a view through coercion, “system” on some level is to be suspected.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Civilization and Education Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book