Decolonizing the academy

Norway’s unlikely national debate

decolonizing the academy

Photo: Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash
Fiery debates have started in Norway over decolonizing the academy.

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Jonas Njau
Ås, Norway

The movement to decolonize higher education enters an unsuspected arena three years after student protests were first mobilized under the slogan #RhodesMustFall at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. With many pitstops on its way around the world, this movement ignited fierce debate among academics on the other end of the world, Norway.

Living the colonial hangover

It’s impossible to view the world in its modern context without seeing the shadows of our colonial past. Our daily lives are characterized by this. Even global concepts of beauty are still colonial in nature, from how the most influential black woman casually sports straight blonde hair to Asian people paying top dollar to look more Caucasian. We are living the colonial hangover.

Knowledge as power

Academia and knowledge play central roles in our understanding of the world and of self. This translates to great power, and with great power comes great responsibility. The accumulation of knowledge in the West and the boundless collection of data in other parts of the world is seldom accessible to the communities where the research is conducted. We are otherwise familiar with the criticisms surrounding the accumulation of raw materials used for technology and other goods, yet less so regarding raw data that transforms into knowledge.

Decolonizing the academy

The debate that originated from one of the more vivid examples of colonialism in living memory has left its mark on institutes of education the world over. The discussion centers on existing colonial power structures that influence what is regarded as knowledge: how it’s taught and by whom.

The Norwegian debate was initiated by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund through its resolution published in April, which calls for the decolonization of higher education. A subsequent event hosted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo in June addressed the legacy of the colonial era in Norwegian academia, which became the catalyst to the national debate.

Critics of the debate were quick to dismiss the notion of decolonizing the academy as having no merit in Norway as it was never a colonial power, while others view the move as a serious threat to academic quality. It was just a matter of time before such a brazen dismissal would escalate the discussion and bring the dark side of Norwegian colonial history to the fore. Sindre Bangstad points out that, “Norwegian scholars of history and anthropology have in recent years documented the involvement of Norwegians in the high tide of European colonialism, whether as plantation owners on estates with thousands of slaves in Portuguese colonial Mozambique, or as mercenaries in the Belgian King Leopold’s colony of the Congo.”

The proponents of the campaign have since clarified their stance and outlined their goal as working toward a more balanced and less Eurocentric presentation of the world in the different disciplines. Rectors from several of Norway’s leading universities have also weighed in on the debate and encourage diversity in academia but avoid use of the term decolonization.

Dialogue on the issue is healthy, and so is the resistance to the very proposals that come with it. Academia holds a vital role as society’s guardians of knowledge and culture, and therefore shouldn’t easily bend to popular demand. As it is yet in its early days, it will be exciting to see how this debate will have implications for higher education in Norway.

The opinions expressed by opinion writers featured in “On the Edge” are not necessarily those of The Norwegian American, and our publication of those views is not an endorsement of them. Comments, suggestions, and complaints about the opinions expressed by the paper’s editorials should be directed to the editor.

Jonas Njau is a master’s student in International Relations at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He is also the founder and director of Finesse, a consulting firm within the fields of art, media, and marketing.

This article originally appeared in the November 30, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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