Decolonising the Curriculum or Decolonising the Mind? Seminar 3

The third seminar in the powerful “Decolonising the curriculum” series looked inward at how our own minds perpetuate colonial ideologies.  “All research is autobiographical,” Prof Debbie Epstein, a Professor of Cultural Studies in Education in the School of Education at the University of Roehampton, quoted one of her friends to open the session.  And, thus, the Cambridge community was inspired to look inward to our own misconceptions, myths, and misguided ideas in an attempt to challenge the colonization of our minds.  Epstein introduced herself as a Jewish South African, who came to the “process of de-colonising” from her experiences growing up during apartheid.  Session co-leader, Sharon Walker, a PhD student in the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, shared her own experiences in the struggle of decolonization of the mind: “I’m Black and I grew up in England.  Need I say more?”

Epstein and Walker shared stories that punctuated identity struggles within their families’ experiences.  Epstein recounted the astonishment felt by her grandfather and young father when they recalled a miners’ strike in South Africa violently shut down (and shot down) by police forces, while the protest placards read, “Workers of the world unite for a White South Africa.”  Walker recollected her father describing the first time in his life when he saw a white street-sweeper in England.  It was as if “something inside his mind turned upside down.”  In her own youth, Walker starkly remembers having to both apologize for and defend who she was on the school playground.

Walker and Epstein used a participatory approach to ensure the participants had time to both listen to each other and share their own stories.   The co-leaders invited workshop members to identify themselves and describe how each felt in one word.   All participants mentioned their desire to learn more about decolonization, although post-US election, the mood in the room was strikingly lacking joy.

[Description: word cloud epstein & walker]

Working in small groups, the participants were asked to find common definitions for the following terms:

  • decolonising
  • pedagogies
  • dominant discourses
  • nomalisation
  • privilege (in relation to pedagogy)


After an involved discussion, each group shared their definition or an interesting perspective they heard during the conversation.  The whole-group discussion that followed placed individuals’ first encounter with pedagogy in the home,  with “parenting as the first pedagogy.”  Additionally, participants recognized privilege as knowledge of ‘the codes’ of society.  The idea of the importance of language emerged early and continued to be a theme in the discussion.  As some participants felt they lacked the sophisticated vocabulary to truly express their relationship with de/colonization, one member of the group noted that assigning status to words, and policing language deemed as ‘lower status’, is a strategy that aims to exclude voices from discussion.  Poignantly, she stated that, “The system is gas-lighting us,” by seeding doubt that our language, our words, and our ideas can ever be good enough to engage in the discourse of de/colonization.

Walker and Epstein shared with the group a definition of “pedagogies”:

“Pedagogies – something both formal and informal; the unhidden (formal) and hidden curriculum; what we learn as “common sense” from the wider society.”

To take the discussion further on our time, Epstein recommended we read Elizabeth Ellsworth’s  Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering?

The workshop continued by exploring the pre-assigned readings.  To continue your own work on decolonising your mind, please find the readings here:

NGuGi’s Decolonising the Mind
They Are Burning Memory by Njabulo S. Ndebele
More on Rhodes Must Fall

To conclude the reflexive session, Walker shared the idea that perhaps, the process of decolonization is one that may be inherently violent.  The reclaiming of rights, of spaces, of one’s own voice necessitates returning power to its just owner.  This idea implies that the current holder of the above may not cede what’s rightfully ours peaceably.  If so, we should consider the place and meaning of violence in our lives. 

To consider the place of violence and justice in your own mind and life, the speakers encouraged Lewis Gordon’s lecture on Fanon and Violence, which can be found here:

Finally, Epstein and Walker closed the workshop in laughter and community, as we came together to watch Trevor Noah satirize colonialism.

And, thus, may we all go forward to work on decolonising our own minds and supporting each other.  In our work towards justice, we must not forget to take care of and to challenge our own minds. 

Tatiana Rostovtseva (Research Assistant, Cambridge Mathematics Education Project (CMEP), University of Cambridge Centre for Mathematical Sciences)

Part of the Decolonising the Curriculum in Theory and Practice Research Group at CRASSH

Posted: Wednesday 16 November 2016