In Response to the Questions Raised

The Undercommons

The Undercommons is a freedom school that operates in Los Angeles, California, in the United States.  We work to equip social movements with the looted intellectual and material resources housed in universities.

“Is education for liberation, in the sense of Paolo Freire, Henry A. Giroux, and others, impossible in a for-profit institution? How might we think through both shareholder returns and critical pedagogy in the same breath?”

We want to fight the frame of the question.  By asking whether or not the for-profit institution is compatible with education for liberation, we are operating on the presumption that the institution’s goals set what is possible for the school.  But as students of the Black radical tradition know, that isn’t how power works, or how it has ever worked.  Resistance to oppression is, necessarily formed within the conditions of oppression. The self-emancipating slaves in Haiti and Brazil, didn’t need to step outside of capitalism to get free, and they didn’t need to exit the plantation to disrupt or co-opt its operation for their own ends.

If form determined possibility, these institutions of power wouldn’t need to be policed and securitized in the way that they are.  The questions actually in front of us are:  What resources do you have access to, regardless of why they were made available to you?  What leeway do you have to use them? In other words, what modes of subversion can you participate in? What kinds of surveillance and punishment manage the resources you have access to, and what can you do about them?

“How might we teach students to think in a way that is inherently decolonial as they go through their undergraduate curriculum? What kind of practical assignments do we set, what kind of theory do we read, what kinds of discussions do we ensure that we have?”

We understand colonial education to be the systems of education put in place by colonizers in order to protect and advance their colonial interests. Accordingly, we understand decolonial education to be abolitionist.  A decolonial education is one that contributes to destroying the relationship of colonialism (or neocolonialism) that holds one group of people hostage to the whims and interests of another.  On this understanding of decolonial education, it isn’t possible for a curriculum to be inherently decolonial.  Decolonizing is a political, material, and spiritual objective, not a methodology or a set of practices identifiable without reference to their effects.

Many of our most prolific and important decolonial scholars were trained in mission schools or what could have been considered colonial education, for example, W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James. When they realized the sham that was and still is western civilization, they turned their political objectives to decolonization using the very colonial education they received.  They used that very “colonial” education as a positive contribution to their decolonial political efforts.

As we know, no curriculum, no matter how woke or intersectional, can succeed at being decolonial unless and until it materially alters the relation of power between colonizer and colonized towards the abolition of that relationship.  We all also know that the form of experience for 28 students in the room, no matter how personally meaningful and liberatory, will not be decolonial for the millions of Africans who are not in the room.  That is, unless and until it contributes to the erosion and eventual abolition of the colonial structures they confront in their daily lives.

Curriculum is but one facet of education. The structure and location of education, who teaches, and who learns have all been infected by histories of colonialism and its attendant dislocations such as racism, patriarchy, etc. Yet we can’t then reject all forms of education that we believe to be European for the performative sake of not being European. Our selective rejections must be based on concrete decolonial objectives, and since plenty of European peoples have been colonized, there are decolonial traditions to be had everywhere resistance to colonialism has occurred, and it always occurred.

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