Decolonize your classroom

Education is one of many institutions that are colonized. Graphic by Abby Hoehn


In American schools, students sit at desks in classrooms, listen to lectures, do homework and take tests. This is what education means to Americans. We might not see this as a “colonized” concept because this system of education is so normalized in our society; education has been this way for years. However, these are all examples of colonization. 

Perhaps students struggle to stay seated at desks. Perhaps doing homework outside of class is not an option because a student works two jobs. Perhaps a student struggles to focus on a test for an extended period of time. These students are still expected to work harder to participate in the traditional education system. While you might not think of these things as examples of colonization, they are.

Colonization is traditionally known as the domination or control of a people by another. Today, it manifests itself most prominently in the way we have structured our systems to only benefit those in power.

We perpetuate colonized cultures and concepts in our society and campus when we assume that one system will work for everyone — spoiler alert: it doesn’t. Our systems were built for one type of person: the wealthy, cisgender white man. To assume that everyone can succeed in these systems without rebuilding them means asking anyone for whom the system was not built to work harder than others. It’s not a fair ask.

Dr. Corey Reed is an assistant professor of philosophy who focuses on Africana philosophy and the philosophy of race and racism. Reed explained the concept of colonialism.

“Sometimes [colonization is] in our way of doing things and saying only one way of doing things is right,” Reed said. “It’s systems of oppression that keep recapitulating themselves … Some of them are very explicit — some of them you have to dig in order to find, especially those that are in our own psyche.”

Students participate in colonial practices every day because education in America is colonized. Dr. Teigha VanHester, assistant professor of race, gender and sexuality studies, uses the American idea of education as an example of modern-day colonization.

“[Being educated in the United States means] you go to college, you sit in lectures [and] you take tests,” VanHester said. “But that’s a very colonized view of what learning is and education is. [For] other collectives of people, whether they are from non-Western countries, developing countries or indigenous populations, education is understanding how you connect with the Earth. And education and learning happens through music or lyric or creative writing or some form of other expression that doesn’t happen in a very contained entity like it does in [a] Western context.”

Western culture demands and even legislates that people go to school for 12 years to be educated. There is an understanding that 12 years of school is the only way to become educated. As a result, people who do not participate in a 12-year standard education are labeled uneducated and unintelligent. This is how education is colonized.

We like to pretend that Western ways of being are right. After all, this is the colonial mindset. The solution to colonization is decolonization which refers to the process of deconstructing ideas of Western superiority.

Decolonization is not diversity or inclusion. Including people in spaces that are not built for them is asking them to succeed in a system that is built to make them fail. 

Reed sees this in Butler University’s demographics. Campus is overwhelmingly White and of a relatively high economic status. We cannot successfully diversify our student body if students who are not White do not feel comfortable in this predominantly white school

“This is one of the primary critiques that I have [regarding decolonization],” Reed said. “I can’t just diversify. I can’t just bring more people in, whether that’s in content or students. I have to also change the space so that those ways of thinking and being are given proper uptake … The student demographics will continue to recapitulate themselves, the faculty demographics, all those things unless we tackle the structural thing that’s perpetuating these patterns, and that’s the part of decolonizing.”

Decolonizing can be scary to those who feel comfortable in our current system and benefit from the oppression inherent in colonialism. However, it is essential that we create a system in which everyone has a fair chance at success.

Cate Howard is a sophomore health science major who recently learned about decolonization efforts in her global and historical studies class, resistance & rights: global women. While she is supportive of decolonization efforts, Howard recognizes that she is a bit fearful of decolonization because change can be frightening.

“I have a level of fear of decolonizing because [the way we currently do] essays or assignments or assessments of learning [are] what I’m experienced with, that’s what I’ve practiced,” Howard said. “That’s what I’ve been trained to do since kindergarten … but if you change it and you assess learning as a more holistic perspective, I think there’s a fear, especially in a lot of STEM students, that you won’t be able to show your knowledge in the same way if it’s not graded [the same way].”

In a STEM field like pre-med or pre-pharmacy, students would still learn the content they need in order to meet specific licensure requirements, but the classroom setting could be made more accommodating. The university could ensure textbooks are more accessible and affordable, and professors can still do their best to ensure all in their classrooms feel heard and comfortable.

Decolonization means changing our systems, and that can be scary for people who have existed in those systems all their lives. However, it is important to consider that people for whom this education system was not built have had to account for resulting disparities their whole lives. Decolonization simply resets the classroom so that no student has to work harder to access opportunities that their non-marginalized peers already have. 

If you feel uncomfortable letting go of your privilege, just imagine how uncomfortable people who are marginalized by our education system have felt all their lives. Letting go of privilege levels out the playing field for all students.

VanHester’s decolonized teaching methods can assuage this fear of change. VanHester enters her first classes of the year without a syllabus prepared. This isn’t for lack of planning, but instead to promote decolonization efforts in her spaces. VanHester asks her students for input on their preferred assessment formats and learning styles. From this input, she creates an individualized syllabus for each of her classes.

This is more work for VanHester, but this is one of the many ways she works to decolonize her classrooms. She wants every student to feel like they can succeed in her class, so she caters her teaching to their preferred methods.

Some people do not just fear change, but also the loss of power that might come with it. If the system benefits you, changing the system to benefit other people is potentially scary.

“I think we have to confront ourselves first,” Reed said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What am I afraid of losing?’ and confront that phenomenon in order to make any sort of substantial change. Because if I’m still holding deeply to what benefits me, then I’m going to slow the process of decolonization, if not stop it.”

A decolonized system is not a bad system, but it is a different one — a better one. It is a system in which every type of person and culture is valid. It is one in which dressing differently, speaking differently or coming from a different background is not a hindrance and does not breed negative assumptions. It is one in which every type of learning is accepted and valid, and all students feel comfortable in their classrooms.

Decolonization might feel like a big task, but we each have a role to play. It starts with letting go of your own personal fears about decolonization. Ask yourself why you might fear decolonization. Ask yourself how the system benefits you. Ask yourself how you can make this system benefit others.

Howard believes she and other students have the potential to help decolonize Butler University’s campus. Howard recognizes that it can be easy to slip into assumptions about our peers, but maintains that students can help decolonize campus by rejecting assumptions and keeping an open mind.

As Howard suggests, we can start decolonizing by refusing to make assumptions about others. We can continue decolonizing by sharing resources; Reed urges students who have privilege in this system to share connections with and advocate for those who do not. 

There is no one way of being. Once we recognize that, we can start to accept others and change our systems to reflect that acceptance. Decolonization is hard work. It’s a relinquishing of power and privilege that can be scary to those in power, but it will be worth the effort when everyone can say they feel accepted in our spaces.


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