The Ambiguities of Colonial Education

Conference Paper to be presented by Peter Kallaway

Peter Kallaway is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Western Cape and a Research Associate at the University of Cape Town. He is interested in the history of education in South Africa and British colonial Africa, particularly in the interaction between missionary educators, philanthropists, and colonial governments.


South African Pre-School
(Photo: private)

The forms of knowledge that came to dominate the African colonial mission school curriculum, and later government schools, have often been criticised for their lack of sensitivity to African or indigenous culture and languages. This state was famously termed “cultural imperialism” in the 1970s and was said to have been one of the causes of the weakness of the educational systems that were inherited by the new national states in the independence era. For example, there was a move to promote an authentic heritage of knowledge (Indigenous Knowledge Systems, IKS) in South Africa after 1994 in keeping with this perceived need to transform public knowledge in line with the liberation politics of the contemporary order.

What this formulation fails to recognise is that there was a long debate over these issues in the late colonial era. It was linked to various notions of development that emerged in the interwar era in which politics, science and policy recognised the significance of these issues. Missionaries, anthropologists and administrators attempted to link experienced practice in scientific field work to new theories of education associated with progressivism, managerialism, vocationalism and cultural relativism. Pedagogy was to be driven by theoretically informed best practices based on scientific knowledge. German Lutheran missionaries were at the forefront of defending African knowledge in the schools and were keen to promote the use of African languages in the classroom. Such policies were widely supported in East and Southern Africa, with the Berlin Mission Society being a prominent advocate.

Yet the major experiments in the adaptation of education to African contexts often encountered strong opposition from Africans – especially those who were most strongly influenced by the winds of economic and social change sweeping through the colonial world, the new elite who were to define the politics of the era. Access to the languages of the market place was seen as providing a key motivation for school attendance, especially at the high school level. In the 1930s, when the links between race and politics came to take on sinister implications in the context of Nazism and Fascism, in the colonial context dominated by the ethos of the League of Nations it was increasingly difficult to defend policies that relied on racial difference and cultural distinctions.

In the end such policies survived only to become entrenched in South African policy, where they dovetailed significantly with the racially defined forms of education associated with the apartheid regime of the post-1948 era. Apartheid education was constructed on the basis of the need for ethnic identity to be promoted in schools – Afrikaner nationalist identity for whites and Bantu education for the various African tribal groups. The long struggle against apartheid education was essentially to counter such distinctions between black and white education.

The idea of basing schooling on cultural heritage therefore has a much more complex legacy than is commonly recognised. In the colonial era and in the present, the relationship between modern global knowledge systems and indigenous knowledge is therefore highly complex and needs to be understood in the historical context, if suitable solutions are to be found.

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