Mind and Heart: The Challenge of Colonialism

May 11, 2021 9:33:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"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.


This month, Dr. Mike Woolf opens up a dialogue on the broader international and historical contexts of colonialism and how it connects to the problematic past with the turbulent times in which we live. He also brings up the effects of colonialism upon social, political, and economic structures.

Our people think: I , Wangari, a Kenyan by birth - how can I be a vagrant in my own country as if I were a foreigner.
—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Devil on the Cross

You see, to be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land and culture.
—Susanna Barkataki, Embrace Yoga's Roots

No Neutral Space

Grappling with questions of empire, colonialism and decolonization is a bit like trying to run through mud. Quite suddenly, you realize you have not made much progress at all. There are areas in which you are likely to sink further into a morass. Traps exist for the unwary: engaging with narratives of sustained inhumanity comes with emotional cost; challenging political orthodoxies may be seen as apostasy, akin to blasphemy.

That was certainly my experience when, with my fellow editors, we were putting together the ninth CAPA Occasional Publication: Empires of The Mind? (Post)Colonialism and Decolonizing Education Abroad. (This publication is available without cost here. Thanks are due to Catherine Colon and Anthony Gristwood, fellow editors who labored with me through this difficult work.)

Mind and Heart The Challenge of Colonialism Photo 1CAPA's 9th Occasional Publication titled "Empires of The Mind? (Post)Colonialism and Decolonizing Education Abroad."

We were forced to move slowly – climb rather than jump hurdles because we understood the theme was likely to provoke personal and ideological conflict. This is not neutral territory. Our discussions reflected debates taking place beyond CAPA’s boundaries; there is no absolute consensus and perspectives are as likely to collide as they are to cohere.

The scenario is further complicated by the fact that terminology is frequently used inconsistently, emphases differ, and ideological beliefs provoke deeply-felt convictions. Racialization of the political environment in the USA also inevitably raises legitimate passions. Legacies of enslavement rightly demand attention. This should not, however, be at the expense of understanding broader international and historical contexts in which colonialism is not inevitably a matter of White subjugation of Black and Brown peoples.

Furthermore, diverse usage generates ambiguities. We are not always using words in the same way and, in the space between meanings, there is potential for disconnect and discord. “Empire,” for example, raises a set of complex questions. If the British Empire is a model, can we talk of a Russian Empire, or an American Empire? How does the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empire relate to these models? Colonialism, too, means more than one thing. Motives and behaviors differed significantly. Extractive colonialism describes the appropriation of natural resources by colonial powers. Sixteenth and seventeenth century European colonial adventures were stimulated by exploration and financed through state approved piracy. Evangelical colonialism was based on the belief that colonial powers were more advanced, racially superior, and/or possessors of a higher religion. They, therefore, had a responsibility to “civilize” indigenous populations. Missionaries and teachers were agents of this agenda. Other colonies, Australia and North America for example, were convenient locations in which to dump “undesirables.” Throughout the nineteenth century, global power struggles also acted as a catalyst for colonial expansion into strategic locations. Colonialism, in short, may have complex and variable motivations, implications, and consequences.

Nevertheless, at the center of all colonial thought is the notion of a hierarchy in which races, religions, nations, systems, or customs are deemed superior to others. Decolonization is driven by a need to acknowledge and correct profound injustices embedded in the assumed superiority of White, male, Christian, European, or American, values. Colonialism is a system of global organization that persisted over centuries based on inequalities. The single common factor is power; the capacity of the stronger to dominate the weaker and to impose systems and values that derive from perceived superiority. The colonized are consequently, for any number of reasons, “inferior”: undeveloped, primitive, racialized, infantilized, marked as different and, thus, a lesser form of humanity. This ahistorical map, however, offers a selective view of empires that illustrates the fact that no single model or regional experience can categorize all colonial enterprises:

Mind and Heart The Challenge of Colonialism Photo 2Five of the largest empires in history.

We chose this topic precisely because of these complex ambiguities. It is an area of widespread discussion, within and beyond international education, that resonates with justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion agendas, as well as generating a desire to decolonize. However, there is little agreement about what all that means in theory and what to do in practice. The need for an open exchange of views was, and is, clear. A necessary and ongoing debate needs to take place in an atmosphere of respect for views that may not be the same as ours. That is the spirit that informs all our occasional papers. Propositions to which we all agree are likely to be anodyne, simplistic, and unchallenging.

The Importance of Doubt

My conviction is that respectful disagreement is intellectually stimulating and ultimately necessary for creative thought. I often return to the example of two wise rabbis. Shammai (50 BCE–30 CE) and Hillel the Elder (c. 110 BCE–10 CE) rarely agreed about anything much. They did not seek to reach a consensus. Their discourses always concluded with the idea that these were “disagreements for the sake of Heaven.” Regardless of heaven, thought moves beyond superficial reiteration of received ideas when thesis is challenged by antithesis, when dogma is subject to deconstruction.

The importance of doubt was embedded in the title: Empires of The Mind? Why have a question mark after a statement that is not grammatically a question? What does it mean? From the outset it intentionally signified uncertainty. Without the question mark, it is a plain statement but, instead, the interrogative invites interpretations, for example: does empire persist in the mind as formative memory or inherited consciousness? Do we invent versions of empire to align with our own ideological beliefs? Is empire, in post-colonial history, a psychological condition, a trauma, comforting nostalgia? Concepts of post colonialism and decolonization were similarly located in a field of complexity and ambiguity. The bracket in (Post)Colonialism asks questions about significance. Perhaps “post” does not necessarily mean “after,” or it implies other possible perspectives. What are they? What does that mean for decolonization in theory and practice?

Clarity is not inevitably desirable if it represents oversimplification. Playwright Brian Friel’s assertion has some relevance here: “confusion is not an ignoble condition.” That thought resonates with the objectives of international education. We achieve a level of enlightenment with the realization that what we believe to be true is not a matter of universal agreement. Learning to doubt and embracing insecurity are legitimate objectives. In taking students from one country to another, we seek to disrupt assumptions, to inculcate diffidence rather than certainty, to subvert expectations. This draws us back to the injunction of Einstein to “make it as simple as possible but no simpler.” Simple stories are, for the most part, simply too simple. In destabilizing our own perceptions and those of our students we seek the kind of wisdom envisaged by old Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living. One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.”

Disagreement and doubt are appropriate in these discussions and to education abroad in general where our stance is properly agnostic. A key task is to challenge students to rethink what they know as they engage with unfamiliar voices in unfamiliar places. We are also students in this space. That was the spirit embedded in this volume, as John Christian, CAPA’s President argued in his foreword.

From the beginning, the objective of the Occasional Papers has not been to resolve issues or to propose a thesis but rather to create space in which we can speak to each other in bold and creative ways. If, after reading these essays, you are left with more questions than answers, we will have done the job we intended. If we can enhance our own discussions, we will certainly serve our students more effectively.

We wanted a debate in print. The narratives presented range from theory to practice, from personal to institutional perspectives; they cross continents, begin with diverse assumptions, reach instinctive conclusions, and connect problematic histories with the turbulent times in which we live.

We are all children, sometimes orphans, of empire. Some legacies are clear, others are more elusive but impacts upon social, political, and economic structures persist. Further they permeate the filters of consciousness through which we see the world. Histories are told and re-told through lenses shaped by subjective minds. Poetry, politics romanticization, demonization, nostalgia, and belief, in fluid conjunctions, shape the stories we tell and those we favor or discount. Empires are reconstructed in the mind in ways that are both emotional as well as intellectual. Discussions about colonialism are rarely conducted in an ethos of reasoned neutrality.

The Challenge of Decolonization

How do we end silences?
—Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, November 4, 2020

We have become increasingly conscious of the footprints left by colonialism in many parts of our troubled world. Decolonization has consequently emerged as a cluster of reactions aimed at exposure and eradication of the colonial heritage. In a contested arena, there are defenders of that heritage and, in contrast, those who emphasize the damage and pain inflicted by colonialism. Statues, names, monuments, and other symbols of the colonial past are sites wherein conflicts are enacted. There are opposing perspectives even amongst those who are committed to decolonization. In destroying those monuments, the argument goes, we encourage historical amnesia when it would be better to remember and learn from the past. By way of example, the aftermath of the destruction of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in the UK was marked by controversy within progressive communities in the city.

Mind and Heart The Challenge of Colonialism Photo 3Statue of Colston, English slave trader thrown into the river, June 7, 2020

Decolonization may generate a variety of complex, even contradictory, ideas and emotions but, in any form, it addresses a legacy of hierarchy. One key task is to unearth bias and validate the significance of alternative voices, histories, and traditions, in Philip Murphy’s phrase to “end silences.” Readjustment of unjust marginalization is at the heart of the process and has become a perceived imperative in education abroad.

The aspiration to decolonize teaching and learning draws upon the notion that knowledge is not neutral. What we call truth is subjective; what we know is conditioned by place and time. We build upon, amend, or discard what has gone before. We comprehend the world differently than our forefathers did. Future generations will certainly redefine those things we now believe to be true and create alternative realities. “False facts” is a political oxymoron that, for all the distasteful implications, reflects the conditional nature of truth. Controversy and dispute are inevitable.

Colonialism demonstrates that what we believe is shaped by the contexts of time and place. Consequently, decolonization is a complex, emotion-laden, topic; it would be foolhardy to propose simple solutions. Nuanced thought and respect for a diversity of perspectives is a requirement, not the arrogance of unexamined convictions. While there may be a widely shared aspiration in education abroad, there is not a set of clear, discernible steps that lead towards some imagined state of grace; nor is it an inevitable outcome of a predetermined agenda. Decolonization is a process not a destination. It requires introspection and reflection on attitudes, curricula, teachers, places, students, and critically the practice of education abroad itself. A spirit of humility and tolerance for disagreement is a pre-condition for progressive improvement. An invitation to agree, disagree, challenge, disturb, and disrupt might unearth ambiguities, enrich our discourse, and bring greater insights to the work to which we are collectively committed.

Replacing one set of orthodoxies by another is no solution. Silencing dissent directly contradicts diversity which has, at its core, an ideal of inclusion. Exclusion of ideas paradoxically reenacts the arrogance of colonial thought that values only those ideas that sustain a dominant system. A “cancellation culture” that represses those with whom we disagree is intellectual totalitarianism. Our obligation is to question perceived wisdom; tolerance of dissonance and disagreement is a moral and intellectual imperative in the civil societies in which we hope to live.

Remembering Pain

I do not have clarity today, and I hope that I never will. Clarifications would amount to disposal, settlement of the case, which can then be placed in the files of history… nothing is resolved, nothing is settled, no remembering has become mere memory.
—James Amery, At the Mind’s Limits

As editors and writers, we were challenged by material that explored the impact of suffering. It is no easy matter to “study” dehumanization of those who have been defined as different. The history of colonialism is marked by acts of inhumanity that challenge equilibrium and compassion. There is an obligation to retain academic perspective but that coexists in tension with a consciousness of the pain of those who had no voice and whose identities and histories were obliterated.

Mind and Heart The Challenge of Colonialism Photo 4Herero and Namaqua victims of German colonial genocide in Namibia.

I have spent some years reading, writing, and researching the ways in which Roma, Jews, and Black peoples have been constructed as pariahs, treated as scapegoats and subsequently, demonized, persecuted, slaughtered. Slavery is a chain that connects Jews, Roma, and African Americans. The myth that Roma and Jews were complicit in the suffering of Christ led to their being seen as a threat to European communities, “unclean” carriers of infection, a view that led inexorably to the gates of Auschwitz. Webs of discrimination and persecution entrap many more marginalized peoples than those discussed in this volume.

I am very aware of the problem of “studying” these groups as if their suffering is something to be observed from distance. I can attest to the fact that this cannot be done. The dispassionate perspectives of academic enquiry collide, inevitably, with empathy for the suffering of others. Empires of The Mind? contains stories of cruel dehumanization from many perspectives. We cannot, should not, allow those difficult histories to remain on the page. Through words we learn more of our past and present, but they are also threads that tie us to a common humanity. They speak in a language of pain, passion, and the anguish of the silenced dead.

Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Development of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education