Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Debt, Education, and Decolonization

  • Jason Thomas Wozniak
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_478


Financial debt has had a major role in defining colonial and neocolonial world history. Likewise, it has historically influenced education and plays a central role in shaping education theory, policy, and practice in the contemporary global neoliberal economy. Linda Martín Alcoff (Alcoff 2014) has written that “Decolonizing education requires first and foremost a thorough and comprehensive critical analysis of colonialism itself, in all its subtle guises” (p. 92). With these words in mind, and with a focus on the Americas, the first section of this short piece selectively highlights debt’s role in colonial conquest. Combining historical evidence and contemporary critical theory, the second section of this article traces how debt influences educational experience. Finally, building on the work of Walter D. Mignolo (2011) and other decolonial theorists, it is suggested that “decolonial thinking and doing” within education, and as educational praxis, emboldens resistance against the colonizing forces of debt.

It is important not to omit a significant detail about the debt-education matrix that will be discussed below. W.E.B. Du Bois (2008) famously remarked that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” (p. 3). In the twenty-first century, there exists a debt color-line. Debt, in the realm of education, is incontrovertibly not colorblind. Traditionally and fervently, debt has been used worldwide by colonial powers, e.g., European and North American States, and financial capitalist institutions like vulture hedge funds to subjugate marginalized groups. Today, it most severely impacts the educational experiences of these same groups of people.

Colonial Dispossession by Debt and Debt’s Influence on the Ego Conquiro

The story of debt’s role in shaping the darker side of colonial modernity (Mignolo 2011) often remains in the shadows. To cite one example of debt’s highly influential but largely unknown part in affecting colonial modernity, consider the following. Some of modernity’s most famous conquistadors like Balboa, Pizarro, Francisco de Montejo, Pedro de Alvarado, and Hernán Cortés share a crucial commonality: They were all heavily indebted. An examination of the indebted history of Cortés demonstrates just one of the ways in which debt was a key factor in provoking and enabling accumulation by dispossession in the Americas. Colonial historical evidence also licenses the claim that debt should be given deeper deliberation in the analysis of the constitution of what Enrique Dussel (2000) has termed the ego conquiro.

Cortés arrived on the American mainland in severe debt. As Bernal Díaz de Castillo, who accompanied him, wrote, “(Cortés) was very poor and much in debt, despite the fact that he had a good estate of Indians and was getting gold from the mines” (Díaz in Graeber 2012, p. 316). As the anthropologist David Graeber (2012) has shown, Cortés’ marauding and butchering of indigenous peoples was motivated not only by a hunger for fame, certain perceived obligations to the Spanish Crown and God, but also by a deep desire to be free of debt.

Of course no one person can instigate genocide alone. Cortés enlisted the help of 600 men to launch his expedition on the mainland. Much like their captain, these soldiers coveted fame, fortune, and the desire to liberate themselves from debt, debt they owed to Cortés himself. By the time the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan had fallen, Díaz could state, “We were all very deeply in debt” (Díaz in Graeber 2012, p. 317). To make matters worse, for the indigenous population that is, in order to free himself of the men that most complained of their indebted status, Cortés, according to Díaz, “determined at once to get rid of the most troublesome fellows, by forming settlements in those provinces which appeared most eligible for this purpose” (Díaz in Graeber 2012, p. 318). Lamentably, Graeber (2012) reminds his readers, “these were the men who ended up in control of the provinces and who established local administration, taxes, and labor regimes” (p. 318). What must be taken account of here, and what Graeber exposes so well, is that “the frantic urgency (to pay back) debts” (p. 318), which were interest bearing and thus compounding, played no small role in influencing the unheard of amounts of dispossession and destruction of indigenous peoples by early conquistadors like Cortés.

Limited space does not allow for extensive rumination on the degree to which the subjectivity of ego conquiro (I conquer therefore I am), which Dussel (2007) has argued predates Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), and is an ontological category fundamental for understanding colonial modernity, is influenced by debt. But Graeber’s recounting of Cortés’ conquest, coupled with his analysis of the effects of debt on subjectivity and human relations, should at least cause a speculative pause. It very well could be that the ego conquiro, which according to Dussel is a self-expanding subjectivity that imposes its will to power primarily on those of the so-called Global South, is at least in part constituted by the force of debt.

Education as a Process of Shaping Indebted Subjectivity

Traditionally marginalized groups are disproportionally familiar with the ways which both debt and education can be used to impose ways of being and acting in the world on people. The historical record of education efforts aimed at postbellum African Americans, mainly in the southern United States, exemplifies this point. In her analysis of the ways in which emancipated slaves were fashioned into indebted subjects, Saidiya Hartman (1997) masterfully demonstrates how the convergence of debt and education has been and remains a central means of fabricating indebted subjectivity. Hartman describes how emancipation for slaves did not mark the end of bondage; rather, it marked the beginning of an era of “indebted servitude” (pp. 125–126). Moreover, according to Hartman, former slave owners, northern industrialists, and liberal reformers in the postbellum United States worked to guarantee that ex-slaves be “transformed into a rational, docile, and productive working class – that is, fully normalized in accordance with standards of productivity, sobriety, rationality, prudence, cleanliness, (and) responsibility” (p. 127).

To accomplish this task, a debt-education matrix was utilized. Postbellum education initiatives aimed at freed slaves were a medium for constructing indebted subjects and contributed to what Du Bois (2008) described as the “pall of debt” (p. 87) that hung over the American south. After the American Civil War thousands of ex-slaves were forced into debt peonage. Additionally, through a variety of pedagogical techniques, chief of which involved conduct books like Jared Bell Waterbury’s Friendly Counsels for Freedmen (1864) or Reverend Issac W. Brinckerhoff’s Advice to Freedmen (1864), they were taught, according to Hartman (1997), to responsibly honor financial obligations meant to entrap them, and supposed debts of freedom towards benefactors and the nation, that at once freed, and indebted them (p. 130).

Debt as a Neoliberal Apparatus in Education

Debt’s influence on education is not merely a phenomenon of the past. Maurizio Lazzarato (2012) has decisively demonstrated that the neoliberal era in which we currently live “has been founded on the logic of debt” (p. 25). Debt, Lazzarato maintains, is at the “strategic heart” of neoliberalism and “represents the economic and subjective engine” of the modern-day political economy (Ibid). It is important to understand, therefore, that education projects organized in accordance with neoliberal ideology are projects substantially saturated with the logic and force of debt. Today, debt is used with efficient intensity to produce twenty-first century versions of accumulation by dispossession in education. Furthermore, education experiences cultivated within a debt paradigm contribute mightily to the fabrication of contemporary indebted subjectivity.

By now it is widely known that past and present university students in the United States and elsewhere face a serious debt dilemma. Andrew Ross (2013) has reported that US university students graduate with debt loads averaging $27,000. The total student debt load in the USA has reached an astronomical $1.2 trillion dollars.

In his provocative essay on the current US student debt crisis in higher education, “The Pedagogy of Debt,” critical theorist Jeffrey Williams (2006) argues that “debt is not just a mode of financing but a mode of pedagogy” (p. 162). Williams highlights six specific lessons that debt imposes. Taken together, they advance the argument that the contemporary debt-education matrix has the ability to fabricate indebted subjectivity.

Williams (2006) contends that first, “debt teaches that higher education is a consumer service,” (p. 163, all italics in original) and that second, “debt teaches career choices” (p.164). The three lessons, that “debt teaches a worldview,” that it “teaches civic lessons,” and that it “teaches the worth of a person” (pp. 164–165), are most directly related to the ways in which debt plays a pedagogical role in forming the neoliberal indebted subject. Finally, debt teaches not only cognitive lessons but also emotional ones. This fact is clarified in what Williams states is the final debt lesson: “debt teaches a sensibility or feeling” (p. 165).

Missing from Williams’ persuasive analysis of debt are two key features. The first is attention to the fact that students of color are disproportionately beleaguered within the US student debt crisis. Research conducted by the social justice advocacy group Demos (2015) has clearly demonstrated the existence (Huelsman 2015) of debt-color lines. According to Demos, black and low-income students borrow more, and more often, to receive a bachelor’s degree, Latino/a and black students are dropping out of university with debt at higher rates than white students, and Associate’s degree borrowing has spiked particularly among black students over the past decade. Debt burdens are compounded for these students. Not only must they struggle to overcome inequalities at least in part created by debt in the past, but also their efforts to overcome said inequalities are weighed down by the fact that they must go into further debt for an education in the present. This education may, or may not, grant them greater opportunities for social-economic equality in the future, a future, it bears mentioning, that is already colonized by accrued education debts.

Secondly, when seen through a decolonial lens, the “pedagogy of debt” takes on important added dimensions. Debt structures, in part because of its ability to colonize the future, epistemic frameworks and ways of being in the world. It demands the rationalization and instrumentalization of ways of thinking and being. As such, debt contributes to the production, distribution, and organization of knowledge, and in doing so, it suppresses alternative knowledge, as well as alternative ways of being in the world. In sum, debt plays a role in reproducing what Alejandro A. Vallega (2014) has called the “Western modern instrumental, rationalist, productive, and subjectivist thought” (p. 219).

A decolonial perspective on the bonds between debt and education also illuminates the large-scale social consequences produced by debt coloniality. Puerto Rico provides a classic example of how debt today functions as a tool of accumulation by dispossession practices in education. The island’s current debt crisis highlights some of the ways that debt works as an apparatus of neocolonial economic pressure to transfer education resources from the public to private sectors. The journal, “The Progressive” (2015), has reported that since 2014, the Puerto Rican government, under pressure from creditors, hedge funds, and the US government, has closed 135 schools – about 10% of the schools on the island. Additionally, “Project 1456,” a new law pushed by neoliberal “reformers” to ameliorate the debt crisis, requires the closure of 400 more public schools – 30% of the remaining public schools in Puerto Rico. “Project 1456” also stipulates that the Puerto Rican government turn at least 15% of the island’s schools into Lider charter schools every 3 years.

Towards Decolonial Debt Resistance in Education

María Lugones (2010) has emphasized that decolonial resistance is neither an end nor goal, but rather a beginning. Most immediately, it reminds us that “we are also other than what the hegemon makes us be” (p. 746). For the rest of this article, I consider a variety of decolonial possibilities that disable the force of debt at work in education and that aim to inspire the conceptualization of education as a liberatory process capable of decolonizing indebted subjectivity.

Three brief comments on the options to be discussed are warranted. The first is that decolonial theory teaches that decolonial debt resistance must engage in a range of different but interrelated struggles simultaneously. A multiplicity of logics and strategies, rather than a totalizing theory or praxis, must be developed. For example, while it is of obvious importance to wage political and economic struggle against indebted life, it is of equal importance to concomitantly strive for epistemic debt decolonization.

The second point is that divesting education from the undue impacts of debt necessarily entails the coupling of decolonial theory and praxis. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) have astutely critiqued discourse in which colonization and decolonization are treated metaphorically. Both decolonial thinking and doing need to be continuously experimented with in the realm of education, and it is only during and after such experimentation takes place that the efficacy of these theories and direct actions can be fully evaluated.

Finally, one does not resist indebted life alone. Individuals must realize, as the activist groups Strike Debt and The Debt Collective have proclaimed, that they are not only not a-loan but also not alone, in their efforts of opposing the logics of indebted life and in their practices of being someone other than indebted subjects. One decolonizes “with someone else, not in individualist isolation,” Lugones (2010) reminds us, and despite the greatest efforts to vanquish decolonial collective ways of being, “these ways of being, valuing, and believing have persisted in the resistant response to coloniality.” (p. 754).

With the above in mind, and in an attempt to circumvent what Tuck and Yang (2012) have critiqued as decolonial equivocation, several concrete decolonial demands in education warrant consideration. The demands below are purposefully “utopian,” utopian understood here in accordance with the Martinican philosopher Edouard Glissant’s (2005) conceptualization of utopia: “Utopia is not a dream. It is what we are missing in the world” (p. 16).

Decolonial utopian demands to address education debt burdens include, but are not limited to:
  • Immediate and indefinite moratoriums on all municipal, State, and national government debt payments to education debt bondholders. Moratoriums on debt payments would be coupled with moratoriums on school closings related to debt. During these moratoriums, bond agreements need to be renegotiated, and terms for eventual education debt jubilee must be established. George Caffentzis (2013) highlights the successes of related demands in his analysis of the debt resistance movement “El Barzón” of the 1990s in Mexico. El Barzón, Caffentzis recounts, “is a mass organization of debtors that, at its height, had half a million members and chapters all over Mexico. It provided to its members both legal aid and ‘muscle’ to resist foreclosures and repossessions due to debt default.”

  • A critical engagement with the problematic of settler colonialism with respect to debt. Debt has historically had a fundamental role in settler colonialism. Throughout history, indigenous groups have had their lands taken from them because of contractual debt agreements. Furthermore, it is on these lands that many schools and universities were built. There exists a moral obligation for communities worldwide to engage in discussions with sovereign indigenous nations on reparations for territories, especially discussions that address the occupation of lands by schools and universities. Contesting debt coloniality in this context would require the adoption of indigenous concepts and terms related to debt and reparations.

  • The abolition of debt in countries like the United States, Canada, and others where university student debt burdens many. The said debt must be immediately abolished, not forgiven. As Andrew Ross (2013), activists groups like the Debt Collective, and others (See the excellent collection of essays edited by David Palumbo-Liu on debt activism in the journal “Occasion” Vol. 7, 2014) have argued, the majority of indebted university students had no other choice than to go into debt to receive a college education. In other words, they did absolutely nothing wrong by going into debt, therefore why beg for forgiveness. Instead, demand debt abolishment.

Drawing on Mignolo (2007, 2011), it could be said that the above demands would be a part of broader efforts at “delinking” education from the forces of financial debt. Mignolo has described delinking as the decolonial process of inventing “decolonial visions and horizons, concepts and discourses” (2011, p. 312). Delinking opens up the possibility for the creation of decolonial knowledge, institutions, and subjects (Mignolo 2011 p. 9). In this way, we might think delinking together with the invaluable decolonial dictum “Inventamos o erramos” or “We invent or we error” from nineteenth-century philosopher and educator Simón Rodríguez. Significantly, delinking education from debt depends heavily on the ability to delink education from debt’s temporalities and pedagogies. This piece concludes with summaries of decolonial theories that might stimulate this.

Mignolo (2011) has asserted that colonization of the concept of time enables the control of subjectivity. Debt’s ability to colonize our notions of time, and its capacity to shape the rhythms of our everyday lives, is central to its power to shape indebted subjectivity. Lazzarato’s (2012, pp. 44–49) analysis enables us to briefly highlight several key characteristics of the temporal dimensions of indebted life. The temporality of debt is nonlinear. Debt creates a memory in a person of a future-to-come. This indebted future-to-come constantly travels back in time to haunt the present of the indebted subject. With a memory of debt ever hovering (like a specter), the indebted person ends up shaping one’s self and daily activities so that she will be able to service her debt. The pace of life is set to the rhythm of debts owed; rational and calculative thinking determined by debt becomes the reductive norm.

Contemporary considerations on the decolonization of time must therefore take into account ways in which debt’s temporality can be countered. And it is here where there is cause for optimism in education. Education can serve as a type of counterconduct to the production of indebted subjectivity; it is a privileged realm in which to counter the rhythms of indebted life if (admittedly a big one) educators and students cultivate education experiences composed of rhythms counter to those that debt demands. It is true that today debt’s force in education shapes education rhythms in such a way that education is increasingly reduced to a process of shaping indebted subjects. But in very concrete ways this force can be resisted; it can be removed from educational experiences. Just as importantly, educators can, and often do, rethink pedagogies so that education experiences which cultivate temporalities exterior to the temporality of debt are brought into being.

Decolonial debt resistance in and through education with an emphasis on time and rhythm is further warranted if one considers the following. Mignolo (2011) configures decolonial thinking and doing as a process that involves the decolonization of time, remarking that, “decolonial thinking shall build arguments for the revival of the ‘the de-acceleration of time’” (p. 179). In a similar vein, Nassim Noroozi (2016) has recently developed a notion of the “pedagogy of time” that as an “ethico-decolonial undertaking is committed to a different pace,” a pace which “provide(s) enough time to generate space for the ‘whats’ and ‘whos’ that were excluded or relegated (and thus have been subjected to epistemic violence).” There is decolonial precedence for the move that Noroozi suggests. Simón Rodríguez maintained that “studying needs tranquility,” a belief that, Argentine philosopher of education, Walter Kohan (2015) argues, represents Rodríguez’s lifework of democratizing free-time for study for the most marginalized populations of nineteenth-century newly liberated Latin America. Frantz Fanon (1968) explicitly linked rhythm with decolonization and the cultivation of decolonial subjectivity:

Decolonization never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally….It brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language and a new humanity. Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men. (p. 36)

Importantly, these theories help us think subjectivity, time, and pedagogy together in a way that allows us to reconceive education as a process of opening up ways of being in a globalized debt economy. They also share a commonality in that they avoid reinscribing colonial temporal practices in education by implying that a single dominant temporality cannot be forced on education experience. Rather, they point to the fact that heterochronic and polyrhythmic education experiences are fertile ground for a plethora of subjectivities to take root and be cultivated in.

Ultimately, what deserves contemplation is whether or not it is possible to conceive of and to cultivate education logics and practices which are exterior to the logic and force of education paradigms constructed by, existing within, and serving the contemporary neoliberal debt economy. Asymmetrical creditor-debtor relations sustain this economy. Such creditor-debtor relations entail, it could be argued from a decolonial perspective, what Enrique Dussel (In press) calls, a “pedagogics of domination.” A decolonial option which counters this pedagogics is a Dusselian “pedagogics of liberation.”

Enrique Dussel’s immensely complex philosophy of education, most fully developed in his La Pedagogica Latinoamericana (1973), but only hastily referred to here, stimulates both the critique of pedagogies/pedagogics of debt/domination and the conceptualization of education theory and praxis exterior to said pedagogies/pedagogics. His philosophy of education opposes a dominating dia-lectic with a liberatory ana-lectic. Dussel (In press) has developed a philosophy of education in which “the educative process, by definition, negates the introjection of the system (de-struction) and affirmatively con-structs exteriority through ana-lectic praxis of liberation, in the permanent creative-innovative unity of teacher-student.”

More specifically, for Dussel (In press, italics in original), a “praxis of a pedagogics of domination is based on the postulate that there is no other possible speech than that which expresses the meaning of the established world” and is contra to a “praxis of a pedagogics of liberation,” which is “based on the postulate that I myself never pronounce the revelatory word of the Other.” At the heart of liberatory pedagogics for Dussel is “mutual listening,” reception of, and responsibility to, rather than domination of, the Other. Dussel’s elaboration on this point deserves to be quoted at length:

Pedagogics demands listening to the voice of the Other. In pedagogics the Other’s voice signifies content revealing itself, and liberatory education can only begin with the revelation of the Other. The student reveals himself to the teacher; the teacher reveals himself to the disciple. If the child’s voice, the voice of the youth and the people, is not heard by the father, the teacher, and the State, then liberatory education is impossible. Mutual listening sends, and essentially, the other receives (though clearly with diverse meanings for one party). This sending and receiving is the conditio sine qua non of pedagogical love (agape) as extreme gratitude (Italics in original).

In sum, a Dusselian pedagogics of liberation counters the ego conquiro logic of debt pedagogies with the logic of the decolonial gift. If the pedagogies of debt can be said to seek to dominate and give shape to the Other, the pedagogics of liberation do the opposite by receiving the Other as a gift. Thus, a pedagogics of liberation offers the potential for a paradigm shift in education away from debt, and towards a paradigm of the gift, which, if we concur with Nelson Maldonado-Torres (2007), is essential to decolonial projects. “This is the precise meaning of decolonization,” Maldonado-Torres tells us, “restoration of the logic of the gift” (p. 260).


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Humanities Department San Jose State UniversityThe Latin American Philosophy of Education Society (LAPES)New YorkUSA