Colonialism, Post-Colonialism and Postcolonialism: What It Means for Education Abroad

Dec 4, 2018 8:35:09 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

History and Metaphor

Discussions of colonialism and its legacies are rarely conducted in an ethos of reasoned neutrality. In the midst of the passion and turmoil that marks the discourse, it is possible to discern two distinctive narratives.

The first is historical. In that context, the focus is on the imposition of European control over “less developed” regions and nations for approximately 80 years, broadly from the 1880s to the 1960s. The primary colonial powers were European. Geographically, while there were many colonized regions, much of the debate centers around Africa. The primary example of a colonial power is Great Britain, probably because it was the most dominant and long-lived. Post-colonialism refers to the subsequent emergence of independent nations, often following prolonged liberation struggles, in the 1950s and 60s.


A dilemma for historical post-colonialism is that the transformation from colonial to post-colonial governance did not, in many cases, bring improvements to “liberated” populations. A generation of African leaders including Robert Mugabe, Hastings Banda, Idi Amin, Sekou Toure, led brutal and corrupt regimes aimed at enriching themselves, their families, and at best, a selective elite. The lives of ordinary citizens, in many cases, were impoverished socially, economically, and educationally. They were subject to arbitrary injustices that were often worse than those suffered under many colonial administrations. Post-colonial history raises uneasy questions and demonstrates the need for open debate, honest exchanges that enrich rather than restrict our conversations.

The sun has set upon the British Empire and upon all those other lesser colonial empires. There is, however, another form of colonialism that mirrors that history. Instead of imposed control by a powerful country, the role of domination has devolved to transnational agencies, most notably the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The parallel is inexact in so far as this form of control does not involve a territorial presence and national self-determination remains theoretically in place. The realities are, however, comparable, as the writer and political activist George Monbiot argued in The Guardian, July 5, 2015:

The IMF is controlled by the rich and governs the poor on their behalf…Its structural adjustment programmes have forced scores of elected governments to dismantle public spending, destroying health, education and all the means by which the wretched of the earth might improve their lives.

The second narrative takes colonialism as a metaphor for inequality and unbalanced power relations. Postcolonialism (without the hyphen) refers to liberation movements that represent historical and ongoing struggles for equity and justice. The colonial—postcolonial dichotomy relates to the perception that European, white, male, heterosexual perspectives are privileged. The consequences are that there is a dominant narrative that excludes the experiences of others, that generates unequal power relationships, imposes social constraints on those outside of the prevailing norms, and creates moral standards that are intolerant of diversity.

The voices of disadvantaged peoples are silenced, “hidden from history” (Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History: 300 years of Women's Oppression, 1973). There is instead a prevalent version of history accompanied by embedded structures that are exclusive and prejudicial. The majority view does not describe a mathematical ratio but system of social, economic and political domination.

Thus, some groups are subject to a form of “colonialism” that ignores their histories and represses the dissonant voices of, for example, women, blacks, LGBTQ people, ethnic and racial minorities. Decolonization is consequently a process in which these groups gain recognition for their significant histories; their voices are heard and the economic, social and political structures that enforce inequality are demolished.

The Educational Context

These debates are relevant to higher education and, by extension, to education abroad. The key issues are: what is being taught? Who is teaching it? Where do students come from (place, class, gender, race, ethnicity)? Where is it being taught?

Postcolonial political perspectives might, if applied without qualification, make some assumptions: that the curriculum reflects a dominant narrative based on white, male, heterosexual, European perceptions: that those teaching reflect or adopt prevailing norms; that the students represent privileged elites; that the most popular locations for education abroad do not represent the learning potential in alternative regions.

Decolonization, given those assumptions, leads towards a number of actions and aspirations. Curricula need to be revised to recognize the significance of other histories and experiences, as reflected in subaltern studies, for example. The concept of subaltern studies is intended to bring previously marginalized perspectives into the academic discourse. Postcolonialism also envisages a shift from “traditional” to “non-traditional” regions as locations for education abroad. Further, those who study abroad need better to represent the diversity of the students on US campuses. Teachers also should challenge dominant narratives and articulate diversity from norms.

I have necessarily oversimplified important conversations so as to bring some core issues into focus. From the point of view of a commitment to social justice and equity, it would be difficult to disagree with the implicit imperatives: to re-balance privilege, to be more inclusive intellectually, to reflect the demography and diversity on US campuses in programs abroad. These are profoundly important objectives and aspirations.

These imperatives do not, however, mean that we no longer have an obligation to challenge some of the underlying assumptions. Firstly, the notion that curriculum requires radical decolonization may contain a curiously static view. The content of what we teach has been substantially revised and continues to be so. Disciplines have disappeared, and others have emerged. Conventional pedagogies have been modified, particularly in education abroad, where the importance of context has driven the integration of formal and informal learning models. The use of technology has enhanced access to alternative realities. The mobility of international scholars has also perceptibly diversified those who teach at home and abroad. New perspectives have, consequently, been brought into classrooms. Foreign students on US campuses have also had an impact on learning environments. The dichotomy between “traditional” and “non-traditional” locations fails to recognize the radical changes that have reshaped European national identities. Efforts to bring under-represented groups into education abroad have been unevenly successful but the issue has moved into the center of the education abroad agenda. Organizations have made diversification a core objective, sometimes their entire rationale (Diversity Abroad). The danger in an uncritical acceptance of decolonization is that it fails to recognize the major dynamics that have shaped and continue to shape our endeavors.

Historically, there is also the case for a more balanced reassessment of colonial and post-colonial realities. That is not to suggest nostalgia for the “good old days” nor does it mean that the racism and phony eugenics that were used in some contexts to justify colonialism should be given credence or respect. Rather, there is space for measured analysis and considered challenges to all interpretations. Those challenges should not be repressed or silenced. Recognition of the value of alternative histories must be inclusive. Otherwise the consequence is that one form of dominant narrative replaces another. That is not progress.

The Bruce Gilley Question

Bruce Gilley, a Portland State University professor, published a controversial essay in The Third World Quarterly in September 2017. His argument in “The Case for Colonialism” was essentially that colonial administrators, in many cases, improved the lives of the colonized. He cites educational opportunities, enhanced public health care, employment, better governance, rights for women, and the abolition of slavery, In short:

The notion that colonialism is always and everywhere a bad thing needs to be rethought in the light of the grave human toll of anti-colonial regimes and policies.

Gilley’s essay was not, in my view, particularly well-written or convincing. It did, however, present a point-of view that challenged post-colonial ideologies. He employed some evidence, albeit selectively, to support his view and raised significantly awkward questions. The selective use of evidence in support of opinion is hardly a rare phenomenon. The essay appeared in a section of the journal called “Viewpoints.” In that context, the evidence that is given weight is a matter of interpretation. Those who subsequently vilified Gilley used precisely the same ideological selectivity to validate their condemnation of the work. Gilley certainly filtered narratives to support his conviction as, indeed, did his critics; they also failed to recognize a historical resonance between repressing opinion and the burning of books that affront dominant ideologies.

Justin Weinberg, associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina argued that, with regard to the Gilley essay, “our default reaction to cases like this should not be ‘retract’ but rather ‘rebut’.” Instead, the essay generated outrage and personal abuse, and led to a petition, signed by almost 10,000 people, calling for the retraction of the article on the grounds that it was “utterly lacking in academic merit.” The petition asserted that “our goal is to raise academic publishing standards and integrity.”

That rationale is abject and spurious. Thousands of articles are published in academic journals ever year that are, demonstrably lacking in profound insight or academic merit. They pass unnoticed and unremarked. What mattered to those seeking to repress the article had nothing to do with standards; the objection was to the author’s opinion. It represented an affront to a new orthodoxy; only one kind of critique is permissible if the criterion for tolerance is agreement with that orthodoxy. This is a paradox that George Orwell would recognize.

Attacks on the essay did not end there. The journal’s editor received “serious and credible threats of personal violence.” Author and editor agreed to withdraw the essay. This was no real victory for the those seeking to repress the opinions of the author. The virulent pressure to withdraw was stupid in so far as it brought much attention to a weak piece of writing which is, consequently, freely available in many places.


The Gilley incident demonstrates the dangers of intellectual totalitarianism. Postcolonialism offers positive ways to direct reform and to enhance social justice and equity. However, if postcolonialism generates ideological perspectives that permit no disagreement, it impoverishes the debates and discussions we need to encourage.

My personal convictions align with left wing politics. In that context, the postcolonial agenda raises questions of justice and inequality that, I believe, need urgent attention. I also believe in the free exchange of ideas and in the value of dissent, from wherever it comes. Orthodoxies need to be challenged in environments in which engagement and debate are the norms, not threats or censorship.

Today’s truths are, in any case, transitory. Galileo Galilei was professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, from 1592 until 1610 (where some 380 years later I taught literature – a progression that disproves conclusively the theory of progress). His research cast significant doubt upon the notion that the earth was at the center of the cosmos. This work was condemned as heresy by the Inquisition and he was forbidden to teach further. He spent his later years under house arrest, a pariah guilty of challenging the prevailing orthodoxies of his times. I am not comparing Galileo with any dissenters in our times, above all not with the dismal Gilley. We have, of course, gone beyond the cruel parochialism of the Inquisition, but that history should teach us something of the dangers of allowing any ideologically-driven canon, of Church, Mosque, Synagogue, left, right or center, to repress the views of those who dissent.

There are, of course, limits to tolerance. Incitement to hatred is beyond the boundaries of the law and, therefore, not acceptable in any context. Contesting the impacts of colonialism in the classroom or in an academic journal, whether skillfully or abjectly, is not an incitement to hatred. Ignoring the inhumanities imposed upon colonized peoples is to ignore historical realities; ignoring the inhumanities enacted by post-colonial governments is to ignore historical realities. These are failures of intellect, perhaps primarily politically-driven rhetoric; they are not incitements to hatred or mortal sins worthy of the intervention of an Inquisition.

Recognition of the profound significance of diverse voices should not, must not, lead to the silencing of dissent. The historian Geoffrey Alderman speaks to the heart of these matters: “A primary duty of any scholar is to question orthodoxy and challenge perceived wisdom, no matter who is offended.”

We owe it to ourselves and our students to ask those questions.

Thanks Mike!

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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Topics: Study Abroad, International Education, History Abroad, Politics