Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Poststructuralism, Postcolonialism, and Education

  • Aparna Mishra Tarc
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_189



Postcolonial theory coincides with radical disruptions to colonial systems of thought brought about by civil rights movements in the ‘60s in France and other Western nations. In the wake of the Shoah and liberation struggles in ex-colonial nations, French poststructuralists began a systematic critique of Western metaphysics of being and its attendant modernist operation. Poststructuralists use various means and methods to destable the assumed primacy of modern structures of language, knowledge, governance, ethics, and patriarchal social relations to unveil the hidden aims and catastrophic ends of Western ontological projects assuming a mythical superiority of European man over other beings (Derrida 1974). For Lévinas (1969), in particular, the ethno-superior subject and totalizing logics underpinning Western ontologies of being greatly inform devastating genocidal and colonial projects leading to the finite extermination of the unique existence of others before, during, and after the Second World War.

Given its emergence in a time of ultimate colonial failure, Robert J. Young argues that poststructuralist theory is already postcolonial. For Young (1990) poststructuralism arises directly from sustained philosophical examination of the modernist imperatives of European ontologies of the human and the nature of human being. According to Young deconstruction is primarily of the “concept, the authority, and assumed primacy of, the category of ‘the West’” (19). The poststructural reveal of colonial ontology in the Western episteme, in turn, generates a postcolonial vocabulary, framework of geopolitical and historical analyses, and set of constructs that challenge, contest, and “rethink the premises, assumptions and protocols of its centrist imperial culture” (Young 2001, p. 414).

Poststructuralism informs the most influential postcolonial theorists of our time, most notably, Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In its close association with poststructuralism, postcolonial scholarship is routinely accused of being apolitical. If aligned with the politics of anticolonial and/or decolonizing projects, leading postcolonial theorists are careful to resist a reformulation of oppositional, reductive, ideological, or identarian logics that repeat the narcissistic and self-preserving violence of being underpinning the white mythology of Western metaphysics (Derrida 1974; Bhabha 1994). As with poststructuralism, postcolonialism is an enactment of thought that excavates, deconstructs, and represents modernist forms of knowledge, history, and social organization, but with explicit reference to a colonial frame and context. Acknowledging their debt to the decolonizing movements, Homi K. Bhabha (1994) suggests that postcolonialism examines blurred, broken, and antagonist social ties produced from violent histories of colonial oppression and their aftermath. For Bhabha, fractured social bonds bind contemporary and global geopolitical relations into a historical knot that is difficult but necessary to untangle. In this regard, postcolonialism bears the reparative impulse of poststructuralism to imagine, create, and enact just modes of thinking and being in the world with others. Postcolonial theorizing seeks to supplement, recuperate, narrate, and renew a wounded humanity from the more violating imperatives, actions, and events cast in the name of the human and humanism.

Key Postcolonial Thinkers in Education

Widely viewed as inaugurating the field, Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism is the first full-length study of its kind to examine the representation of the “Eastern Other” in Western metaphysical thought and the humanist tradition. If widely critiqued for creating an “other” monolith of the human, Said’s work is remarkable for its detailed, Foucauldian excavation of figures of foreignness as depicted in literary and colonial accounts. In contrast to Said’s macro-historicizing project, in the Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha invents strategies of critique to investigate the micro-political dimensions of colonial operation. Leaning on an eclectic array of poststructural and anticolonial theories, Bhabha argues that colonial structures find their basis in fantastic self-other relations and formulates a psychosocial lens to bring nuance to philosophical and social investigations of colonial processes. In her groundbreaking article, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” Gayatri Spivak emphasizes the gendered quality of colonial relations, and the complex role of sexually exploited, disappeared, and forgotten women in colonialism’s patronizing schematic. Using deconstruction, Spivak (1988) organizes the unrepresentable qualities of subjectivity of the “other” using the Gramscian conception of subaltern. Subaltern stands in for the unrecognizable and abject (female) body subject to the devastating effects of patriarchal and sexual violence ricocheting off the uneven male colonial contest over family, language, politics, law, culture, education, and resources. Spivak relocates the logics and enactments of patriarchal struggles for social control over territory, rule, and resources in the bodies of women caught in between warring factions of colonial and “native” patriarchal governance.

The poststructural destabilization of canons and institutions of Western knowledge continues to present a series of challenges, aporias, and generative opportunities for postcolonial theorists. Postcolonial scholars conceptually lean on and forge departures from modernist projects of enlightenment, history, and humanism informing modernism’s metaphysics of being. The more notable of poststructuralist constructs taken up by postcolonial theories involve the qualification and renewal of ideas of the “other,” the human, difference, differend, discourse, subjectivity, narration, representation, and justice in diverse colonial contexts. Through various philosophical and literary methods, postcolonial scholars experiment with, supplement, and/or contest the operation of Western knowledge; culture with “other,” hybrid, and indigenous aesthetics; social forms; cultural productions; and critical theories of humanity. Invented constructs such as subaltern, native informant, hybridity, worlding, and the third space, seek to account for a persistently deformed construction of the colonized subject in philosophical thought, colonial records, and contemporary cultural productions of “others” in a globalizing world.

Education and Postcolonial Theory

Immense is the range of postcolonial scholarship and inquiry within and across academic disciplines. Postcolonial thought is inherently interdisciplinary and transgresses the fields of philosophy, history, geography, anthropology, social science, economics, political science, literature, cultural studies, education, and the helping professions. Still, postcolonial orientations and methods of analysis have yet to significantly infiltrate mainstream forms of compulsory, public education systems across the world that continues to build upon colonial foundations and theories of knowledge, literacy, and learning. As John Willinsky (2000) demonstrates, public schooling in nations worldwide remains stubbornly tethered to educational processes of subject formation in the European mold of the human as upheld by the Commonwealth or ex-colonial State. For example, the impact of colonial English education is felt in global times; to receive an exemplary education is to acquire an education in English. Consequently English is the global language of commerce and trade, academic knowledge, technology, cosmopolitanism, and culture.

Postcolonial scholars look to education as enabler, producer, and liberator of human subjectivity from Western aesthetics, logics, operations, discourses, institutions, and the insidious reach of global capitalism. Said’s (1978) work contributes an understanding of the role of knowledge production in the making and remaking of societies and worlds. For Said, knowledge, and thus education, is not ethno-culturally neutral or empirically unmotivated. Said’s historicizing critique investigates the colonizing operation of the educational enterprise in advancing Western forms of knowledge above and at the expense of others. For Said, true knowledge of the world lies somewhere in an unrelenting archeological excavation of human histories. Bhabha (1994) identifies knowledge archived in colonial encounter as a third space of possibility for a world reeling from colonial pasts. Returning to the colonial archive, Bhabha reconstructs pedagogical strategies of resistance used by colonial subjects, including mimicry, misrecognition, and revolt, against colonial role. He locates human agency in the symbolic capacity of human beings to imagine and produce different social organizations from forms of resistance to multiple and continually morphing forms of colonial violence and control. Spivak (1993) has theorized education as pharmacon, as both a medicine and poison that enable and injure subject formation by particular means, for colonizing and liberating ends. Education, Spivak suggests, remains an important site of postcolonial inquiry and intervention into the ontological meanings and epistemological productions of being and not being human. As with the “post” in structuralism and modernism, Spivak insists that postcolonial studies are not simply what comes before and after colonialism but what is retrievable from within its enabling and enduring anthropomorphic, patriarchal, and ethnocentric violence continuing to form human thought, organization, and existence.

Poststructuralism and the (Post)colonial Roots of Modern Education

Across the world, in ex-colonial, settler colonial, and colonial nation states, public schooling continues to impart, import, and exalt Western ontological and epistemological molds and logics. Poststructuralism does offer educational scholars theoretical tools and methods for interrogating these continuities but without specific reference to a historical or political context. Consequently, poststructural critiques of modernity are often unhinged from enduring material, geopolitical, and educational consequences for indigenous and formerly enslaved and colonized communities. In his book, Out of Africa, Pal Ahluwalia argues that poststructuralism carries a foreclosed debt to the particular and localized (post)colonial contexts giving rise to poststructuralism’s incredible movement of thought. Ahluwalia further suggests that poststructuralism arises from an unnamed postcolonial recognition of the violence of modernism’s colonizing logic, one that has yet to be fully mined by scholars working with these frames. For example, obscuring lines between French poststructuralism and its Algerian (post)colonial roots mute the violent historical and political context driving its movement while sidelining the ontological and epistemological contribution of formerly colonized nations to poststructural thought. Colonial legacies of violence and antagonism can be directly indicted in the contemporary production of postcolonial tensions arising between French citizens, French-Algerian citizens, and Algerian migrants seeking refuge in “multicultural” France. Excavating historical and political context to the legacies of colonialism framing new social and political formations of global life, postcolonial theorists labor to supplement, return, and challenge the primacy of all forms of Western thought (including poststructural) “to disrupt the cultural hegemony of the West, challenging imperialism in its various guises” (including multiculturalism) (Ahluwalia 2010, p. 3). Although linked, the ontological and epistemological “posts” guiding poststructuralism, post-humanism, and postcolonialism are “out of joint,” and, yet, this disjointedness is also a strength, giving rise to generative points of dialogue, debate, and departure for those working across these frameworks.

Educational systems and scholarship also suffer from a foreclosure of education’s colonial roots. A glaring lack of inquiry into colonial foundations of “universal” public schooling advances the study, enactment, and global circulation of Western forms of education (Rizvi 2007). Colonial logics inform categories of difference, normative models of human development, and ideas of national citizenship in public schools across the globe. Through the provision of English and French and the centering of Euro-colonial curricula, public schools in ex-colonial nations continue to be beholden to Western colonial logics, curriculum, and practices of education. Specters of colonial logics justify State-sponsored forms of forced, residential, and segregated schooling structure and inform unequal relations between students and students and teachers while advancing dominant misrepresentations of communities historically marginalized in and by school.

Postcolonial scholars are committed to an examination of the ongoing and persistent role of empire in the contemporary practice of education. These scholars engage with the traumatic implication of colonial pasts in the present treatment of students from communities affected by injurious school experiences. As with poststructural scholars, postcolonial scholars are concerned with the status of subjectivity and the human in the organization of categories of difference-stratifying school. They contextualize these categories in legacies of slave and/or colonial institutions and demonstrate the influence of colonial pasts for perpetuating material, linguistic, and social inequities in the classroom. Postcolonial scholars also stage reconstructions of race and other defaced social categories as an instrument of colonial technology of subject formation symbolically and materially delivered to children in the earliest experiences in school. They insist on postcolonial frameworks to support teacher training as a responsive education with communities impacted by violent histories of colonization.

Postcolonial scholars in education are uniquely positioned to articulate challenges associated with working inside and against the colonial logic underpinning educational systems in ex-colonial nations and threatening to universalize “new” visions of supposedly “global” and “best” educational practices. They view the constructing and enacting of particular forms of humanness as and in active psychosocial forms of praxis delivered through tacit and insidious colonial educational technologies. They share the poststructural concern with and interrogation of the status of human in education through postcolonial inquiries that persistently question the tight Western, ontological hold and normative value of the human in the formation of children through schooling. Postcolonial approaches to education not only include an excavation of the role and activities of Western “normal school” in colonial projects; they generate and lift up forms of schooling that run counter, alter, or resist those put forth by Western proponents of modern education.

Despite criticism against the largely discursive and intellectualized take-up of postcolonial theory in the Western academy, in many ways the full social and pedagogical potential of postcolonial thought is yet to be realized. Postcolonial theory threatens the colonial foundations of mandatory public education, an institution of subject formation and social organization that has yet to be shaken. Under global capitalism, ex-colonial nations continue to cling to colonial educational systems to gain economic, political, and material advancement on the world stage. As human rights-based movements of education are tied to Western forms of education, initiatives put forward by the UN such as “Education for All” are also tethered to colonial foundations and Western ontological molds of the human. The global acceptance of Western forms of universal access to public schooling can make education impervious to postcolonial analyses.

Still, postcolonial theory is powerful in rethinking the possibilities of education for new forms of subjectivity, knowledge, and social organization and institution in this century. Indeed, as Fazal Rizvi (2007) suggests, education in a global age necessitates a postcolonial approach as from the minute of the child’s entry into the world she is subject to an immense complex of colonizing forces, discourses, and histories that abstractly condition her being. As globalization rearticulates national boundaries and claims to citizenship, it is critical that educators of the twenty-first century adopt a postcolonial lens. Global movements of people, knowledge, and ideas generate new forms of social connectivity, organization, and belonging informed and driven by a postcolonial past. New manifestations of these histories continue to affect the lived, multilingual, and cultural realities of migrant, immigrant, refugee, and diasporic populations and inform the educational experiences, curricular knowledge, and social organization of students in schools. Without a postcolonial lens, rapidly globalizing forms of Western education risk re-entrenching gross geopolitical and economic inequities and bitter antagonisms between ex-colonial and newly formed and failing nations. Vanessa Andreotti (2011) further argues that, as an actionable form of social praxis, postcolonial theory alerts us to the dangers of foreclosing new and old colonial imperatives underlying any educational enterprise seeking to humanize the child by particular means and/or for certain ends.

Postcolonial approaches to education seek to interrupt normative, “scientific,” and Western frames of educational research and scholarship. Postcolonial constructs pose serious questions to educational and social science researchers utilizing taken-for-granted and/or universalized social categories that form their understanding of unique bodies and complex learning processes of students in the classroom. Postcolonial scholars in education argue that Western theories of development, literacy, and knowledge offer partial, partisan, and thus distorted versions of how each child grows, learns, and participates in social life. When acknowledged that mandatory schooling and modern education are complicit with particular colonial aims of the adult, community, or society, educational scholarship is faced with the demand to rethink some of its most cherished and exalted conceptions of the child, language, care, knowledge, experience, pedagogy, human participation, and education. Postcolonial scholarship in education identifies competing epistemologies, representations of knowledge, and the pedagogical relation as the symbolic and social means by which human beings might relearn a humanity injured but not overdetermined by colonial pasts.

At its most radical, postcolonial theory makes an ethical and pedagogical commitment to creating a freedom seeking and just education for newcomers in an old and globalizing world. Postcolonial histories of oppression and mass violence behoove the adult community to consider and take care with the ontological molds, epistemological virtues, and institutions of human becoming to which the child is necessarily and violently subject. Postcolonial educators challenge the adult community with the demand of supporting the symbolic, experiential, and existential entry of the child in social forms, events, and organizations that acknowledge each child’s whole existence, participation, and potential in particular and shared worlds. Postcolonial scholars in education acknowledge the pedagogical relation as critical to the renewal of violently broken social bonds structuring possible futures of a globally shared human community. Postcolonial education as human praxis might form a global community that can bear learning from the excesses of empire’s terrible history to think, speak, write, teach, and live with greater intention with all beings sharing an existence, presence, time, and place in a dynamic world.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.York UniversityTorontoCanada