In 2016, when we were writing the proposal that became SARiHE, the movements #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall were making the headlines worldwide. Students were clamouring for significant changes in South African universities, including decolonisation of curricula that, in their opinion, were not fit for purpose. The team who wrote the bid had been involved, in their different ways, with issues related to internationalisation of the curriculum for several years. These issues are similar to those raised by the decolonisation of curricula. Curricula – including content and learning, teaching and assessment approaches – should be designed to develop global understanding and challenge powerful positions on knowledge and on learning and teaching. We knew that rural students in South Africa and Southern Africa struggled with curricula that didn’t reflect their lived experiences. It made sense, therefore, to include a focus on how rural students experienced these curricula. Hopefully, we could then propose inclusive alternatives that build on all (including rural) student experiences.
While reviewing different areas of literature connected to our study, I came across Connell’s (2017) notion of ‘curricular justice’. I was familiar with Connell’s work through her book Southern Theory (2007) in which she asserts that social science is still dominated by philosophies that are based on ‘Northern’ or ‘Western’ ways of knowing. Some statistics that she quoted made a huge impression on me when I read them – that the most privileged 600 million people in the world assume that their experiences obtain for the 6000 million. Intrigued by this term curricular justice, I traced it to a much earlier paper that Connell wrote (1992) in which she explains it. Basically, she considers that all curricula should challenge dominant perspectives and practices and include those that are more local to a context. I love the image conjured up by her words that the selection of ‘knowledge’ for a curriculum is ‘not done in heaven by a committee of epistemological angels’ (Connell, 1992, p.137). In other words, curricula don’t fall from the sky; they are developed by people in contexts and for particular purposes – often ideological ones. Additionally, Connell claims that curricula need to address the marginalisation or discrediting of cultural, religious and linguistic traditions. We can relate this to ‘epistemicide’, the concept that the realities of the global South are ignored in most epistemologies – the ways in which ‘knowledge’ is understood (de Sousa Santos, 2012). For Motsa (2017, p.30) these realities/knowledge systems ‘have been perceived as pagan, mystic, non-scientific, incompetent, irrelevant and downright non-existent’ and not worth including in curricula.
We are using the term ‘curricular justice’ to help frame our preliminary analysis of some of the co-researcher data. We’re using it because we believe that the 21st century university system continues to be inequitable, that it often perpetuates social inequalities and that Eurocentric curricula still prevail throughout the world. In order to develop socially just curricula, the voices of those who are most implicated in access and equity agendas, need to be heard and attended to. In any such discussion, therefore, whether it be in South Africa or Europe, the curriculum needs to be at the centre. Crucially, SARiHE preliminary findings illustrate how important it is for student co-researchers to be able to relate to curricula that reflect their own experiences and indigenous knowledge systems, curricula that they do not experience currently. One student co-researcher commented poignantly – and pointedly – ‘You have to change, the curriculum stays the same’.
Curricular justice? Or decolonisation? Or fighting epistemicide?
For me, it is not one or the other. I don’t see curricular justice as replacing or being superior to decolonisation and the struggle against epistemicide. What I do find helpful is that curricular justice encourages dialogue, a critique of ‘culture’ and the reframing of learning as a conversation. In addition, we want our research to have relevance beyond the immediate context and relate to similar social justice movements in other parts of the world such as buen vivir in Latin America and ‘why is my curriculum white’ in the UK. For these reasons, curricular justice may be a more useful and accessible term for many.
In Phase 2 of SARiHE (April – July 2018), we’ll be interviewing and conducting focus groups with senior university leaders, academics and academic developers from our 3 South African sites. Data from student co-researchers will be used in forming suitable questions for these activities and conversations will investigate how inclusive, socially just curricula (that address diversity at multiple levels) might be developed.
By Sheila Trahar
22 February 2018