POLYLOGUES AT THE INTERSECTION(S) SERIES: Looking Back in Anger: Shifting the Grammar of Colonial/Western Pedagogies

by Sayan Dey

In “On Being Truly Educated” (2015) Noam Chomsky argues that “it is not important what we cover in the class, but what we discover in the class to be truly educated”. Etymologically, the word ‘education’ has originated from the Latin word ‘educare’, which can be interpreted as ‘to bring up’, ‘to rear’, and ‘to lead’. In other words, one of the major purposes of education is to nurture and create able leaders in a society, who would be able to contribute holistically, de-hierarchically, and diversely towards sustainability of life. But, as we look into the general scenario of education systems across the globe we see a highly contradictory and disappointing picture.

Mostly, the intention behind ‘education’ as a phenomenon and ‘educating’ as an exercise, has become a crucial tool for various western/colonial forces of capitalism to manufacture various epistemological and ontological boxes of knowledge binaries that carefully safeguard the western/colonial metaphysical empires and successfully spread violence and hatred in the forms of racism, Islamophobia, patriarchal heteronormativity, etc. in the contemporary era. These formats of violence are manufactured, documented, and archived in various forms – pedagogical structures, syllabuses, textbooks, research articles, dictionaries, and audio-visuals. The boxes have given birth to a set of ‘one-size-fits-all’ parameters of learning and sharing knowledges, which benefits a certain group of ethically, morally, and economically privileged people in a society and undermines the knowledge systems of the ‘others’. Such practices of inclusivity and exclusivity have transmuted education from a system of collective ‘knowledge dissemination’ toward a self-centered capitalistic mode of ‘knowledge production’.

With respect to the aspect of ‘knowledge production’ in a western/colonial capitalist world, Achille Mbembe, in his article “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of Archive” (2018) observes that “every human being becomes a market actor; every field of activity is seen as a market; every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, state or corporation) is governed as a firm; people themselves are cast as human capital and are subjected as market metrics (ratings, rankings) and their value is determined speculatively in a futures market” (4). The capitalization and marketization of the knowledge systems are pushing individuals into suffocating compartments of ‘bad faith’. The experience of bad faith provokes individuals to build realms of chauvinism and pseudo-intellectuality in which one’s perspectives of knowledges are regarded as superior and the ‘rest’ are regarded as inferior. The impact of marketization and bad faith can be seen through the violent pedagogical attitudes of many teachers who dislike being questioned, challenged, and counter-argued by students in the class; by creating hierarchical classroom environments in which certain students are ‘allowed’ to engage in discussions in the classroom and certain students are ‘not allowed’ to do so; through projecting certain fields of study as socio-culturally more contextual and economically more valuable than others (usually the academic fields of science and commerce are projected as superior to the field of arts); through promoting certain syllabus structures of certain universities as epistemically and ontologically ‘authentic’ and certain syllabus structures as ‘inauthentic’; through developing universalized patterns of learning and undermining individualistic ways of learning and sharing knowledges, etc.

So, to counter-resist these habitual challenges that individuals encounter in the process of learning and sharing diverse constellations of knowledges across the globe, the following section makes an effort to investigate the roots of various pedagogical, epistemological and ontological issues through selectively analyzing certain terminologies that function in a highly colonial-authoritarian-capitalistic manner.

A Non-Conclusive List of Terminologies and Counter-Possibilities

  1. Teacher: The word teacher originated from the Proto-Germanic word ‘taikijan’, which later on in Old English was called ‘tæcan’. ‘Taikijan’ or ‘tæcan’ means “to show, point out, declare, and demonstrate”. Historically, in the west (Europe and Europeanized North America) the process of showing, pointing, declaring, and demonstrating were underpinned by various forms of ideological authoritarianism based on class, gender, race, society, culture, and geography. With the expansion of European colonization across the globe, the indigenous methodologies of teaching and learning were disrupted and replaced by the western/colonial authoritarian phenomenon of ‘taikijan’ or ‘tæcan’. This authoritarian practice continues even today and it can be observed through the experiences of several students, who have to face the wrath of their tutors for posing questions, arguments, and disagreements in the classroom.
  2. Classroom: To understand the authoritarian function of the classroom, it is important to locate the etymological origin of the word ‘class’. The word ‘class’ originated from the Latin word ‘classis’ which means “a division of people or assembly of people”. Usually, the word ‘class’ is used to portray different forms of existential divisions and hierarchies in general. With time, this hegemonic notion of the word ‘class’ has pervaded the educational institutions and has given birth to an epistemologically and ontologically violent structure called ‘classroom’. For instance, I can recollect how during my school days a majority of the teachers expected us (the students) to think, to interpret, to question and to respond to textual and contextual ideas in a certain manner. If anybody disrespected the patterns as set up by the teachers, then they were subjected to ridicule.
  3. Students: The word ‘student’ has originated from the Latin word ‘studere’ which means “applying oneself to”. In the precolonial traditional societies, the process of learning and sharing was an open-ended and a de-hierarchical exercise. During this exercise, knowledge was not purchased and sold like a market object but was exchanged wholeheartedly in a collaborative and inter-generational manner. In other words, the application of one’s self was not limited to the four walls of the classroom and/or to a few sets of syllabuses and textbooks. Knowledges were inculcated from forefathers and foremothers and were shared by individuals across and over different generations. One of the major purposes of learning was to remain connected to one’s own bio-logical, socio-cultural, and mnemonic roots. But, today the act of being a student is infected with the toxins of western coloniality/modernity, which, in the name of being ‘smart, modern and universally valuable’, seduce individuals to give up one’s indigenous systems of knowledges and mimic the western/colonial systems of knowledge production. Ultimately, these actions cause social, cultural, physical, psychological, and mnemonic decapitations.
  4. School: The decapitations (as mentioned above) are systemically and epistemically supported through colonial/western/westernized schools that function as a breeding ground for immorality, non-ethics, and violence. It is interesting to note that the word ‘school’ originated from the word ‘skholē’, which means a leisure place for learning and having fun. Lewis Gordon identifies ‘skholē’ as a medium to respect the humanity of the students. On 11th November 2019, during a conversation with Maria Paula Meneses and Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Lewis Gordon said: “We need to be treated like human beings. In other words, if we treat people and respect their humanity they grow. If we don’t most people wither”. In the name of modernization and internationalization, the western/colonial school systems that are being established across the world pose a serious threat to the humanity of the students through manufacturing boxes of epistemological and ontological binaries like good knowledge/bad knowledge, ethical knowledge/non-ethical knowledge, high knowledge/low knowledge, important knowledge/unimportant knowledge, appropriate knowledge/inappropriate knowledge, etc. Those who fit within the boxes of goodness, ethicality, highness, importance, and appropriateness are allowed to enter through the gateway of the institutions, and those who don’t fit are forced to stay outside.
  5. Syllabus: Another problematic tool for western/colonial pedagogies are academic syllabuses that are usually prepared and disseminated by a specific group of socially, culturally, economically, and intellectually privileged people who in the name of ‘diversity’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘completeness’ interpret the phenomena of knowledge, education, and pedagogy as mediums of achieving self-centric physical, psychological and ideological goals. Usually, it is found that the process of composing a general and/or institute-centric syllabus is motivated by definite social, cultural, ethical, moral, and political factors that only caters to the need and interest of certain sections of society and exclude the ‘others’.

Having identified the way some of the terminologies germinate violence through dehumanizing certain traditional frameworks of knowledges and shaping the grammar of western/colonial pedagogies, the following section briefly maps the shift of the grammar of western/colonial pedagogies from the clutches of western/colonial/capitalistic systems of knowledges towards de-hierarchical, depolarized and pluriversalized methodologies of learning and sharing.

Mapping the Shift in fragments and fractures

So, how can we generate systematic and structural counter-resistance to dismantle the systemic functioning of the established above-mentioned aspects of epistemological, ontological, and hermeneutical violence? Amongst multitudinous possibilities, one possibility could be to develop liminagraphical spaces of “relationality, reciprocity, accountability and coalition” and those liminagraphical spaces could be curated through the radical, non-linear, and often non-disciplinary paradigms of post-development, critical diversity literacy, conviviality, stupidity, common sense, and many others. Due to the paucity of space and the necessity of continuity I am not going to discuss these paradigms in detail here. But, to give the readers the necessary context of my arguments in this article, I would briefly share the paradigms in a fragmented and fractured manner. Some of the possible paradigms are:

  1. Post-development: What is development? Whose development it is?  How should I/we develop? What lies beyond development? How did indigenous communities develop? Do we need the term development at all?
  2. Critical Diversity Literacy: What is diversity? Why do we need to look at diversity critically? Who are the participants in the diversity discourse? How do we interrogate every form of power dynamics and social justice issues through the lens of critical diversity literacy?
  3. Conviviality: What are the qualities that make us friendly with each other? How are friendly relations influenced by different forms of political, social, cultural, racial, gender, sexual, institutional, and personal prejudices?  How is conviviality colonial in nature and how to decolonize the paradigm?
  4. Stupidity: How has the notion of stupidity been shaped socio-historically ?  How do we decriminalize and celebrate the phenomenon of stupidity? How to decolonize stupidity?
  5. Common Sense: What is common sense? How does the phenomenon of common sense unleash physical and ideological violence and abuse? How can we socio-historically interrogate the colonial constructs of common sense?

The way of defining these paradigms in a fragmented, fractured, and interrogative manner reflects my porous, fluid, and oscillatory positionality in acknowledging and trying to apply them in my daily life. In the process of shifting the grammar of colonial/western pedagogies, as I grapple with these radical paradigms I always encounter multiple levels of anger that are positioned in the past, present, and future. The attempt to define these paradigms through a set of fragmented questions also unpacks my confused state of epistemological and ontological ‘inbetweenness’ which I wholeheartedly embrace in my works. As, for the time being, I embrace my state of confusion as a conclusion in this article, I also briefly pause to collectively self-reflect on these counter-colonial paradigms and navigate ways to apply these paradigms as critically and diversely as possible in the present and the future.

Sayan Dey grew up in Kolkata, West Bengal and is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, University of Witwatersrand. His recent work includes publications such as History and Myth: Postcolonial Dimensions (Vernon Press, 2020), Myths, Histories and Decolonial Interventions: A Planetary Resistance (Routledge, 2022), and Green Academia: Towards Eco-friendly Education Systems (Routledge, 2022). His areas of research interests are postcolonial studies, decolonial studies, critical race studies, food humanities and critical diversity literacy. Sayan is part of the Convivial Thinking editorial Collective. He can also be reached at: www.sayandey.com.