studenten in collegezaal
studenten in collegezaal

Diversifying or decolonising your education: ‘Beauty in discomfort’

What do we mean when we talk about knowledge? How did this knowledge come to be and how does it affect the world? Which scientists are addressed in my course? And how do I, as a lecturer, make sure that there is room for diverse perspectives? Many lecturers think about diversifying or decolonising their education. Kiki Kolman and Tjidde Tempels as well. They are both lecturers at the Political Science programme and were allowed to redesign their course A History of Political Thought this year. How did they tackle this and what were the challenges?

Decolonising or diversifying? 

‘Before this year, the syllabus consisted mostly of white, dead men. The fact that they're dead is somewhat logical, since this is a history course. But them all being white and male, was a problem for us', says Kiki. That is why they started by making their course more diverse. Students no longer only dive into the Western canon, but also explore Indigenous philosophies, Ubuntu, and the political thinking of Confucius. 

So, diversification is more about the syllabus. Which ideas and people are addressed? For Kiki, decolonisation goes one step further. This is a theme she has worked on for some time now. She says: ‘The university was founded in a context in history during which the Netherlands, like many European countries, still had colonies. I think that is intertwined, so the university was partly shaped by colonial times and at the same time influences how we view certain things, namely from a Eurocentric perspective. That, as a university, we shape knowledge and thus partly society, I think everyone can agree on. To me, decolonising means that we look critically at the knowledge we produce, how it came to be and how that affects the world.' 

Tjidde says: ‘I think Kiki and I look at this debate from a different background. The word 'decolonisation' often makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. I am aware that this discomfort may have to do with my own background (white, Western, male), but it also sometimes feels like an ideological, polarised debate. That's why I think talking about diversifying your education can be more constructive. While I agree with Kiki that it's good to think and talk about that, for this particular course I was mainly concerned with whether we could reflect an inclusive and diverse palette of views in that history of political thought.'   

Where to start? 

Adapting the syllabus was still quite a struggle at times, Tjidde states. 'Can you, in good conscience, move from Plato to Hobbes without talking about Augustine and Aquinas?' He mentions that it is inspiring to see how colleagues have tackled this and to engage with others about it. 'A few years ago, for example, there was an article in an academic journal about how they had made the curriculum more diverse in England. That article and the contact we had with the author did give us tools to see which philosophers we could possibly take from it.'   

Kiki adds: 'We also set the old syllabus aside for a while. It was already there, because this subject has been around for some time. But we made a very conscious decision to start with a clean sheet and really think about it all over again. I think that was very valuable for us, because otherwise you have to think about what you delete and then you have to justify it all the time. Of course, we did think about that in the end, but starting from a clean sheet did help us to make decisions.'   

For whom?   

It might be obvious that most humanities and social sciences programmes think about decolonisation and diversification, but what about in other disciplines within the university? In any case, Tjidde thinks it is good for everyone to think about this. 'I do think that one discipline lends itself more to it than another. I do think it's easier to bring in other perspectives within sociology than if study physics.'  

Kiki agrees: 'I do think you can think about the role models you present in all areas of science. Are they white men? And in terms of content, I think it's good to let people know where knowledge comes from. This is certainly true when it comes to science as well. For example, for the development of mathematics, the Persians and the Arabs were very important. By the way, it may well be that a lot of attention is already paid to that at Radboud University, I have little insight into that. And even in exact science, we have to look critically at the knowledge we produce - think of how Linnaeus categorised human races.'   

Planting the seed 

Kiki gets very happy when she notices that a seed has been planted in students. 'When students realise that there are different ways of looking at the world and at knowledge, I think that is really cool! You don't necessarily have to agree, but at least you think about it.' In doing so, Tjidde thinks it is especially important to strive for a classroom where that multiplicity of opinions can exist.  

That the debate about decolonisation can sometimes provoke discomfort is not strange for Kiki either. 'I do feel that sometimes and I think to myself: is it up to us to deal with this? Or are we doing it the right way? But I think thinking about this has brought us a lot as lecturers So there really is beauty in that discomfort.' 

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