Decolonising Curriculum – What could it mean in the Fijian context

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The University of Cape Town’s statue of Rhodes comes down on April 9 2015. Picture:

Decolonisation is no longer fashionable in developing countries and colonialism itself no longer generates much conflict. So, why is the campaign to decolonise curriculum suddenly gaining momentum around the world?

Rhodes must fall
The genesis of the decolonisation campaign can be traced back to 2015 in South Africa where a fierce protest movement began at the University of Cape Town.

This protest movement called “Rhodes must fall” was originally directed against the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

Within only two months of protests, students and academics in South Africa managed to pull down Rhodes’ statue in March 2015.

Following this, the event began a new campaign by students from around the world to decolonise education.

Who was Cecil John Rhodes and why did his statue matter? Cecil Rhodes was a British mining magnate who died in 1902.

His fortune helped establish what has now famously become the prestigious Rhodes scholarship.

Controversy generated by the protesting students and academics was more about the vision embodied in his will.

Rhodes said of the English, “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”.

As Prime Minister of Cape Colony (now South Africa) in 1890, Rhodes promulgated racial segregation policies that eventually culminated into the Apartheid strategy.

Why decolonise education?
Imperial powers might have gone, but it leaves behind the “imitative elites” in the developing world. V S Naipaul referred to them as the “mimic men”.

Because their minds had been colonised, they perpetuated the same structures and ideologies that had enabled the colonisers to rule for centuries.

Thus, students continued their protest to decolonise curriculum at:
* institutional level, against the imperial structures that gave birth to elite educational institutions; and
* subject-specific level, how to diversify the curriculum.

Students in Britain, for example, believed that it is important for all pupils to understand the British Empire’s use of violence against its colonies, and its uncomfortable views on race.

They believe learning about history helps us to stop repeating the same mistakes.

In Australia, seven-year-old, Aishwarya Aswath of subcontinent heritage died after spending two hours in the emergency department at Perth Children’s Hospital.

Based on her appearance and behaviour, the triage staff categorised her in the second-least urgent category.

Investigation has since established that the hospital staff only trained and practiced on white children and white adults.

Medical textbooks only focuses and guides medical students and junior doctors on how white people present with illnesses or distress.

How do we adapt when a BIPOC (black, indigenous, person of colour) family attends hospital or clinic, speaking in a foreign language?

What about when a dark-skinned child is pale or has a rash or bruising?

Or when a brown baby is born jaundiced, or when a BIPOC patient presents with anxiety or depression?

The lesson from this has implications for decolonising the medical curriculum in all multicultural societies.

Decolonising the curriculum is about how Western domination specifically colonialism, imperialism and racism has shaped academic knowledge and disciplines over the centuries.

Scholars contend that curriculum content, dominated by white, male, western, capitalist, heterosexual, European worldviews, tends to under-represent and undervalue the perspectives, experiences, epistemologies of those who do not fit into these mainstream categories.

For this reason, the “Rhodes must fall” campaign has clear implications for Fijian education today.

Look at these examples of our Eurocentric curriculum. In physics, we teach about Newton’s laws and Einsten’s theory of relativity.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is a significant part of the biology curriculum.

We make students memorise Shakespearean plays and Mozart epitomises excellence in music.

Mathematics curriculum is incomplete without Pythagoras theorem. When teaching these concepts in our classrooms, do we ever question whose viewpoint the information is coming from?

Attempt to decolonise
Decolonisation does not mean that schools and universities should simply eradicate European ideas. Rather it is a recognition of the limitations of these concepts within pedagogical practice within disciplines.

Decolonisation refers to making the curriculum more diverse, and representative of different cultures, languages, identities and histories. Take the social science curriculum in Fiji for instance.

The missionaries portray indigenous Fijian city itself in a particular way. Yet, research (see Robert Nicole’s thesis), shows that Fijian ‘towns’ existed long before the modern day version, a deliberate omission as it did not fit the narrative of the times to portray Fijian custom as “debased and primitive”.

There is minimal recognition of the Lapita people in our history curriculum. Furthermore, the stone age and the bronze age – that period in evolution theory when species manufactured tools – makes no mention in the biology curriculum that tools, pottery and canoes made from native Fijian trees were already in existence possibly as far back as 900 BC.

Likewise, the curriculum in other subject areas can reflect the significant contribution made by people from outside of Europe.

For example, when teaching about refraction in physics, teachers should mention the Nobel Laureate C. V. Raman was the first person in 1921 to have successfully explained why deep sea is a brilliant blue in colour whereas the same water in a glass has no colour.

In maths, the number system we use today is actually the Arabic numerals. “Zero” is one of the greatest contributions from India, the times of Aryabhatta in the 5th century. India also invented the decimal number system. As well, students should be made aware that:

* Ancient Egyptians had discovered the antibiotic properties of certain moulds of bread well before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin;

* Ancient China was home to a number of great inventions such as gunpowder (it was an accidental discovery), the compass, paper, ink, the seismograph, and kites;

* African civilisation contributed to the iron age. They were the first people to extract pure iron from its ore, haematite, using smelting furnaces, long before Redox Chemistry existed; and

* Muslim scientists made great advances from the 5th century after Christ until Renaissance in the 18th century. Words like algebra, alchemy, and alkaline, which originates from the Arabic language is testament to the golden age of Arabic science.

Ironically, this was the period of the dark ages – that period in Europe, which suffered from stagnation and backwardness – an intellectual darkness. Indeed, decolonising curriculum has shifted the way we think about education in certain countries. Should we be having that dialogue about the Fijian curriculum?

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