The Newsletter 96 Autumn 2023

What Do We Mean by Decolonizing Education? Responses from the Humanities Across Borders Network

Aarti Kawlra

At a talk given at the Hague campus of the Leiden University in September last year, 1 “Meaning of Decolonizing Education & the 3 Lives of a Student-Scholar” opening talk at the INSOCH Inaugural Conference, The Hague LU Campus, September 29, 2022  I reflected upon academic ontologies and the question of decolonising education through a description of the three intertwined facets, phases or frames circumscribing the lives of a scholar. A career in higher education, whether as a student, or an early/late career professional is, arguably, governed by a techno-productive, a market, and a vogue life.

Drawing from an analogy of the life-cycle of a product of techno-industrial, capitalist production, the life-cycle of a scholar is also marked by very high rates of obsolescence, both of the self as well as of academic output. 2 Uberoi, J.P.S., 2008. Sociology of Commerce and Industry, or the Three Lives of Things. Sociological bulletin, 57(1), pp.41-60.  In the techno-productive face of higher education, one must accept becoming a statistic in the global proliferation of academic knowledge production via the Internet and other digital technologies. In order not to become obsolete, one must learn to function within a milieu of push and pull technologies that ultimately serve EduTech platforms that are increasingly becoming the norm for universities the world over. Not only that, there is also the self-objectification practice one must endure to find a place within the different metrics of excellence, or evaluation criteria such as publications and citation indices.

Becoming a valuable resource in the race to tenure-track placement within the higher education industry marks the market life of a scholar in higher education. This is the commercial value, in terms of jobs and funding that an individual can attract or has access to. Education capital is often, but not always, proportional to social, economic, and geopolitical positionalities within the competitive and closed marketplace of neo-liberalized higher education. Who has this capital? How many generations ago? The market values of the university campus and its revenues from undergraduate courses usually trump historical dis-privilege. And then there is the allure of fashionable research fields, often linked to dominating knowledge circles led by luminary professors. Scholars must align one way or another to waves of shifting knowledge preferences within academe. Disciplinary closure can often be alienating. And negotiating one’s relationship to a subject of study, and finding meaning within it, a lifelong struggle.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of IIAS, we asked colleagues and students from the Humanities Across Borders network to share their responses to a question: “What do we mean by decolonizing education?” In what follows, we present various ways of approaching the prompt: some are new writings from partners, while others were first published previously in The Newsletter or on the HAB website. Each of these voices speak of an encounter, a reflection, or an engagement within the HAB framework of education collaboration, beyond conventional disciplinary folds, each searching for knowledge and meaning in dialogue and exchange.


Aarti Kawlra is the Academic Director of Humanities Across Borders.

Photo: HAB colleagues (from left, Rita Padawangi, Jyothi Thrivikraman, Min Chin Chiang, Aarti Kawlra, Laura Erber, Jody Benjamin, Genner Ortis Llanes, Eric Lawer, and Mohomodou Houssouba) at the Craft as Method workshop in Saint Louis, Senegal October 2022. (Photo courtesy of Rita Padawangi, 2022)