Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Human Rights, Postcolonialism, and Education

  • Ali A. Abdi
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_183


It should be a complex task to connect the notion of human rights to postcolonialism both historically and in the present. To position education as both an enabler and explainer of human rights in the postcolonial raises further questions about how to understand these couplings. Indeed, there exists a Western bias in the construction and understanding of human rights, education, and even postcolonial discourses. Moreover, assumptions of fixed meanings often override the multiplicities of meaning, origin, and operationalization of the concepts. Thus, while the birth of human rights discourse is geographically multifarious, its historicization has been dominated by a Western imaginary and epistemology.

The problematic occidentalization, to borrow a Saidian line (Said 1978), of human rights in their praxical notations from the past millennia and half and into current political and cultural settlements is an issue that needs to be investigated. The first section of this entry seeks to contribute to this investigation through an historical analysis of the theoretical and, by extension, practical incongruences that should characterize the space between colonialism and human rights. Following this, through a much needed revisiting of colonialism and connecting it to postcolonialism, the theorizing of the complex story of postcolonialism will be revealed as deserving many more question marks in both its conceptual and semi-pragmatic deployments. This analysis uncovers some of the ongoing descriptive and analytical threads that should operate at the intersections of the three main constructs implicated in the title of this entry. Finally, the last section of the entry is an analysis of the continuities of colonial education and the need to frame new learning possibilities that can advance viable human rights platforms and decolonizing postcolonialism.

A Brief History of Human Rights

As mentioned above, the history of human rights, its social and political constructions, and its possible regimes of implementation are and should be very contentious. A cursory glance of which countries and societies human rights are currently associated with the systematic construction of human rights does not correctly depict the origins of human rights discourse. From a knowledge claims perspective, that should be categorically readjusted. While the idea of human rights and its diverse practical extensions should have been inherent to all social contexts and formations throughout history, in currently dominant Western knowledge analysis, these are usually associated with the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution (1791). These associative historical mistakes with respect to the origins of textualized and tempo-spatially binding codes of human rights might have some relationship with the decline of earlier Islamic, Asian, African, and pre-Columbus Americas civilizations during the past eight centuries. The concomitant rise of the West seems to have secured new western-centric hegemonies of history, ideas, and knowledge (cf. Abu-Lughod 1995), including the presumptive invention of the idea, as well as the operationalizations, of human rights. As Montgomery Watt (2011) shows, though, the noble invention of the first textualized and documented and, later, most comprehensive early platforms of human rights were made by Muslims.

It is therefore argued that the first official document on human rights was drafted by the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the Medina Letter in 622 AD when he stipulated select rights and responsibilities regimes among the many tribes that resided in the city of Medina (in current Saudi Arabia). As Watt (2011) noted, this document was the first written and officially constituted human rights platform with binding signatures that stipulated both individual and inter-group rights under one system of governance. Interestingly or, perhaps more correctly, consequentially, the second written document on human rights was also created by Muslims, this time by Shiite Muslims in Persia. This more comprehensive human rights platform, called the Treatise of Rights and produced in 659 AD by Ali ibn Al-Husayn, the Fourth Imam of the Shia, contained a detailed set of rights perspectives and expected practices that were as comprehensive as anything created since then either in the West or elsewhere. In a very comprehensive way, especially for a document that did not have any precedence for inclusive categories, the Treatise of Rights discussed and concluded on individual rights, rights of leaders, rights of subjects, and rights of others with this last category concerning how one should relate to and treat “foreigners.” Indeed, familiarizing one’s self with this document, it seems to contain almost everything that has been brought into all successive bills of rights which have been especially purported via Western governance and political systems.

With respect to current major human right documents and contexts, the main one is of course, the United Nations sanctioned Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This important document which is at least politically agreed upon by all countries, perhaps appears unproblematic prima facie. Clearly, all articles in the UDHR were constructed with good intentions and viewing the first few of these, one can indeed experience a mental state of hopefulness that all people’s human rights could be protected. Just to share the focus of some of the first articles, Article 1 states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; Article 3 theoretically affirms that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” In Article 4, it is stated that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms,” and Article 5 asserts that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In reading these and other articles in the UDHR, and while acknowledging that no human rights regime can ever be exhaustive, attending to every human condition and relationship, one can still appreciate the post-World War II temporalities of the principles. Furthermore, once can see how, if implemented, the situation could be better for billions of people across the globe. But alas, that is far from the case. In viewing the history of the world with respect to human rights violations, especially since the formulation of the UDHR principles, one can categorically say that each of the 30 articles including the few mentioned above are being violated by governments and others in almost every country in the world. So, close to 70 years after the adoption of UDHR, there is much human rights rhetoric, but the practical record is not encouraging; thus, the need for the implementation of all UDHR principles remains imperative.

Human Rights and Colonialism

While the facts about the original credit of human rights invention in a systematic documented form, although notions and select practices of human rights should have always existed among human populations everywhere, could be settled here, the role colonialism as a massive human rights violation project coupled by deliberate epistemic deformations that accorded all viable ideas, knowledge, and civilizations to the West has resulted in a very different history of human rights. The necessity of sharing an analytical precis on colonialism should be helpful in connecting it more effectively to the thinning horizons of the postcolonialism belief system. A belief system that, while it continues to be conceptually expounded all over the land, and to be fair, in most cases with good intentions, its expected practicalities (i.e., the end of colonialism in all its forms) are at best shaky, if not majorly absent. The misnaming of colonialism as a civilizing mission (Said 1993) affirms the western perception that others were inferior to them in their human achievement and especially in knowledge and technological achievements. In addition, examining the writings of some of Europe’s most important thinkers and their written justifications for colonialism also reveals their conclusion that Africans, Asians, and others they perceived as less endowed in their human faculties were deserving to be invaded, cheated, and multi-purposively commoditized (Abdi 2008a). Reading the factual representations of these then and now dominant opinions, one has to conclude that European human rights, however they were constituted or intended, were not de facto or even de jure constructed or intended for the colonized. Indeed, even when one studies the UDHR principles, which were announced in 1948, mainly as a response to the destruction caused by the Second World War including the horrible crimes of the Holocaust, one need not miss that the powers who were shaping the agenda of the UN were none other than those colonial powers who were still holding so many colonies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. In fact, the word colonialism, let alone any discussion of the issue, is conspicuous in its absence from all 30 articles of the document. Apparently, the crimes of colonialism were not bad enough for their perpetrators as to claim some space in this otherwise comprehensive document that touches almost every other category of violations that could be heaped upon the lives of people.

The Precarious Claims of Postcolonialism

This very brief focus on colonialism is deliberately designed to underline the weaknesses that are inherent in the claims of postcolonialism. Certainly some worthy works have been written and prepared on the topic (Goldberg and Quayson 2002; Loomba 2005; Ashcroft et al. 2006), with many authors believing they have taken some critical stance on the topic and its potential pragmatizations. Yet more care needs to be exercised with respect to the dangers of unintentionally validating the politico-economic and by extension, livelihood viability of something called postcolonialism. Minimally, the situation needs to be qualified to the extent that while the conceptual constructions and potential practicalities of postcolonialism are more or less temporally meaningful, such cannot be said about the post-“independence” transformational hope of the previously colonized. That is, in terms of power relations, the claim of postcoloniality is not sustainable and cannot be defended theoretically, epistemically, or practically by any serious observer or researcher. From a periodic stance, it can, perhaps, be agreed that the contemporary represents an epochal post facto in relation to the overall global project of physical (not mental) colonization. Yet, if it is the case that colonialism was structured on hugely uneven power relations (Rodney 1982) which spanned across cultural, educational, political, and economic platforms that willfully violated the basic rights of the subordinated, then there remains the need to critically assess the current state of affairs in today’s so-called postcolonial world.

In real terms, while the colonial administrators and military commanders physically left their posts in the old colonies, that viable postcolonial spaces emerged from this is a topic of enduring debate. An example of the mental colonization that ensues in the supposed postcolonial is evident in the fateful words of Thomas Macaulay (2006), former colonial British Governor of India. In his short observations, Minute on Indian Education, Macaulay divulged, for epistemic posteriority, the onto-epistemological designs of the British in assuring the loyalty of Indians to colonial ways of reading and acting on the world. Indeed, this piece which spoke about creating limited legions of Indians who are only Indian in their physical contents but British in their mental and resulting behavioral dispositions, and who also act on behalf of the colonial power as a controlling mechanism for the country’s less Europeanizable masses, is indicative of the power as well as the endurance of mental colonization. Looking both back and forth on the issue, especially as these relate to cultural, educational, and linguistic platforms, one cannot but affirm the almost perfect mechanics of Macaulay’s farsighted designs, especially as these relate to the rhetoric of postcolonialism and the actual continuities of cultural and, by extension, mental colonialism in the country and its large diaspora.

Technically therefore, the claims of postcolonialism, especially with respect to their relationship with human rights, are at best shaky if not mainly untenable. The example of India used here is more or less generalizable to many places in the so-called postcolonial world. Clearly therefore, and unless there is a deliberate and substantial shift or slow evening out of the cultural, linguistic, and educational platforms, then for all practically harnessable intentions, today’s world still favors the colonialist vis-à-vis the rest. With this understanding, there is a need to restart the debates and critically examine the possibilities of epistemic and, by extension, countable freedom achievements that could equitize people’s beings and inter-group global relations. Proceeding from the example of India and checking the postcolonial conditions that are politically or economically more dire, one can actually starkly see the heavier precariousness of the claims of postcolonialism. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the level of control Western countries and their institutions have on the subcontinent hardly fits any notions or practices of postcolonialism.

More often than not, human rights violations that have been mostly learned from colonialism are carried out by local elites that were mostly trained and supported by the old colonial powers. This is now complemented by the perforce impositions of neoliberal globalization (Harvey 2007) with the draconian and recolonizing importations of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that were designed by Western institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). SAPs which have been already discredited but still not disowned by the West have actually led to a recolonized public and educational policy spaces where the ideologically driven and organized violations of people’s basic economic rights (Abdi 2008b) are spread over the lives of hapless masses who should still be yearning for some postcolonial redemption and more meaningful livelihood possibilities. But, with no recourse available, the governance structures built on Western nominated nominal democracies that mainly function to facilitate the flow of aid money to the local regimes actually stifle any genuine postcolonial decolonization of politics, economics, or education. These realities also continuously reconstitutionalize the collaborative rules of locally and globally interlocking elite groups (Hoogvelt 2001; Wedel 2009) that hardly respond to the basic needs of the public. Thus, despite the claims of postcolonial politics, the continuing logics and practice of colonialism ensures the ongoing violation of the rights of people. To be sure though, this is happening at a different time, so as indicated above, it is temporally disconnected from colonialism but not in theoretical and practical terms.

Educating for Critical Postcolonialism

In giving concise observations about human rights and colonialism/postcolonialism, one component of the title, education, has to be deployed here as something that instigates new possibilities in the constructions of the former two. Hence the use of “critical postcolonialism” which should minimally do two things. Firstly, it affirms that the situation in former colonies is not a condition of postcolonialism that can recover those primordial citizenship and human rights situations that were lost under colonialism but mostly a continuation of colonialism by other means. Secondly, rather than spread a program of analytical despair on the topic, it should be affirmed that there is hope for the achievement of projects of genuinely decolonized postcolonialism. This is partially related to the important and concretizable perception that despite the thickness of the colonial onto-epistemological restructuring of the world, we never lose at least a residue of human agency that can be realigned and recapacitated for subjective and social redemption. Minimally or by extended intention, the deployment of the term “critical” should also herald, with important attachments to the original meaning of criticism as contextually improving upon a situation, that there are always some viable liberatory spaces, where the epistemic as well as viable livelihood anticolonial resurrections can be achieved.

To strive for those possibilities, though, in a world so savagely torn asunder in its historical, cultural, politico-economic, and original as well as refurbishable human rights dimensions is not easy. In addition, the idea of educating for something other than current world knowledge and rights disorders requires a novel ideational, analytical, and implementable platforms that can predict and achieve new anticolonial learning perspectives and programs that could reestablish the actionable consciousness of peoples and nations, partially in the way Freire (2000 [1970]) intended, so as to redo the world of the colonized now and for the long term. The need for this thinking and design need not be belabored. But it is still worth reiterating in this short entry piece that an organized and incessant focus on educational analysis in the current context of postcolonialism should be mandated by the enduring force and contemporary curricular continuities of colonial education which, even when it was so counter-communal wellbeing and not conducive to social and environmental sustainabilities, still reigns supreme in the classrooms and lecture halls of almost former colonies. Needless to add for extra emphasis and in relation to the central issue of the human rights perspective discussed here, that an educational system deliberately designed and undertaken for the oppression of the masses cannot, in its original structure and contents, redeem people from its own subjugating qualities. Briefly but firmly, such education was conceptualized, theorized, and implemented for the full scale exploitation of the colonizeds’ psyches, cultures, physicalities, and thought processes, thus effecting a primary and enduring depatterning of their worldviews and overall existentialities. Interestingly and quite unfortunately, the basic philosophical and epistemological foundations of colonial education still characterize almost all learning systems in former colonies. In places like Sub-Saharan Africa, such designs of education did not liberate most people from global political hegemony or from economic deprivation (Abdi 2008b). As such, comprehensively decolonizing colonial education must be directly attached to decolonizing the mind (wa Thiong’o 1986) which, as stated above, remains an important prerequisite for seeking and achieving a viable postcolonial situation.

Clearly therefore, educating for critical postcolonialism requires critical education that is constituted with thick anticolonial pedagogical and learning missions that comprehensively excavate, examine, and speak about the future with conceptual boldness, measured theoretical adventure, and pragmatic prognosis that refuse the racist one-truth paradigms that have been masquerading as the real, indeed only knowledge, for too long. In Gianni Vattimo’s (2011) terms, the European/Western claim of one truth ethnocentrically refuses to acknowledge pluralistic epistemologies and multicultural sciences that factually represent the real histories of human beings and their epistemic establishments and modifications (Harding 1998). Educating for decolonized postcolonialism and for inclusively redeemable human rights platforms all in their historical, cultural, political, and economic dimensions requires, therefore, that the reconstructed pedagogical and learning contexts and intersections be thickly connected to a continuing search for epistemic and epistemological rights that should be constitutive of the new struggles to achieve cognitive social justice and rescind the ongoing regimes of epistemicide and linguicide (Santos 2007, 2014; wa Thiong’o 2009). Basically, this should go back to Nyerere’s (1968) focus on education for self-reliance which cannot be achieved in contemporary contexts and systems of dehistoricization and deculturation as these are never conducive to social wellbeing and community advancement. As Nyerere himself repeated many times, you cannot decontextualize your society and your world, and then expect to achieve cultural, educational, and economic achievements. It is with this in mind that the connections between human rights, postcolonialism, and education need so much more than just presumptions about the ending of colonialism as ushering in new human rights platforms that create and sustain decolonized life systems which could benefit the lot of all. Instead, the urgent mission is to do so much more in aiming for, designing, and achieving genuine conditions of newly decolonized postcolonialism that can redefine and maintain contextually useful and horizontally binding human rights regimes which could be equitably applicable to all.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada