Looking Back in Anger: Shifting the Grammar of Colonial/Western Pedagogies

Dr. Sayan Dey

Senior Advisor - Quality Education

Picture Credit: Oxford

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 global sustainable development. 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 systemic boxes of violence are manufactured, documented and archived in various forms – pedagogical structures, syllabuses, text books, research articles, dictionaries and audio-visuals. The boxes have given birth to a set of ‘one-size-fits-all’ parameters of learning and sharing knowledge, 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’ towards a self-centered capitalist 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 own perspectives of knowledge are regarded as superior and the ‘rest’ are regarded as inferior. The impact of 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; through 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 examinations and undermining individualistic ways of learning and sharing knowledges, etc.

So, in order 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 Selective List of Terminologies and Counter-Possibilities

  1. Teacher: The word teacher has 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 with 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 were 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: In order 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 the passage of time, this hegemonic notion of the word ‘class’ has pervaded into the educational institutions and has given birth to an epistemologically and ontologically violent structure called ‘classroom’. The classroom as a physical and ideological structure functions as a laboratory in which students are used as raw materials of experimentations, manipulations and transmutations. To elaborate further, through a certain set of hierarchical and exclusive pedagogical practices, the teachers perform “mogoj dholai” (brainwashing), which sterilizes and transmutes the individual minds into a state of numbness and handicaps the students from thinking, questioning, expressing and performing.

  3. Students: The world ‘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 own self was not limited within the four walls of the classroom and/or to a few set of syllabuses and text books. Knowledge were inculcated from forefathers and foremothers and were shared by individuals across and over different generations. One of the major purpose 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 own 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, poses 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, political factors that only cater to the needs and interests of certain sections of a society and exclude the ‘others’.

Having identified the ways 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 order to revive and rebuild de-hierarchical, depolarized and pluriversalized methodologies of learning and sharing, it is extremely crucial to generate dialogues “not only as an ontological possibility, but as a historical reality” (Paulo Freire). But, the exercise of learning and sharing through dialoguing is often underpinned with the intentions of creating hierarchies and differences. This is why, in “A Dialogue: Culture, Language and Race” (1995), Paulo Freire and Donald Macedo argues:

In order to understand the meaning of dialogical practice, we have put aside the simplistic understanding of dialogue as a mere technique. Dialogue does not represent a somewhat false path that I attempt to elaborate on and realize in the sense of involving the ingenuity of the other. On the contrary dialogue characterizes an epistemological relationship. Thus, in this sense dialogue is a way of knowing and should never be viewed as a mere tactic to involve students in a particular task. We have to make this point very clear. I engage in dialogue not necessarily because I like the other person. I engage in dialogue because I recognize the social and not merely the individualistic character of the process of knowing. In this sense, dialogue presents itself as an indispensable component of the process of both learning and knowing. (379)

Today, most of the curricular, institutional and academic structures talk about inclusivity, diversity and dialogical pedagogical patterns, but in reality its application is highly questionable. Therefore, this article does not wish to generate an all-encompassing doctrine to solve the above discussed issues, but makes an effort to physically and psychologically ‘unsettle’ the readers and push them into a ‘zone’ of epistemological and ontological discomfort. This will enable individuals to realize that prior to framing new educational policies, building new institutions and shaping new curricular designs it is important to locate the roots of the basic problems and address them thoroughly.


Dr. Sayan Dey grew up in Kolkata, West Bengal. He completed B.A. (English), M.A. (English) and PhD (English) from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and is currently working as Lecturer, Yonphula Centenary College, Royal University of Bhutan. Before joining there he worked as an Assistant Professor, Amity Law School, Noida and Lecturer at Faculty of Humanities, Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan. With respect to his research on decoloniality he has been awarded several international conference and project grants – German Research Foundation Conference Grant (2016 and 2017), Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship (2017), GAPS Travel Grant (2018), Journal of International Women’s Studies Fellowship (2018 and 2019) and Volkswagen Foundation Scholarship (2019).

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