100 Years of Student Movements

In 1918, Argentinian students, deeply dissatisfied with an education system which was still largely autocratic and dogmatic, occupied the country’s universities. The "Manifesto of Cordoba" they produced outlined the changes they were seeking, not just in terms of the university as a bureaucratic entity, but in relation to the process of knowledge production as such. Together with demands for the transparent election of academic staff, student participation in decision-making, and university autonomy, they also questioned the role of universities in maintaining the status quo. The concept of ‘extensión’ - that knowledge needs to interact with the social spheres outside of academia - came into being, posing critical questions concerning the nature of research and education: Knowledge for whom? Knowledge by whom? Knowledge for what? Thus, a university model, deeply embedded in its community and in a sense of responsibility towards society was born, inspiring similar movements across Latin America.

American, French and Mexican student protests in 1968 (www.blackstudies.ucsb)

The decade of the 1960s was a unique time of collective student action at universities around the world in relation to issues of free speech, civil rights and identity politics, opposition to war and colonialism, and self-determination and independence movements. Still central were questions of Whose knowledge counts? How have they been silenced by regimes of western coloniality and imperialism – and what roles have these legacies played in creating and maintaining contemporary global inequalities and injustices. Radical scholarship and cross-cutting praxes that intersected with a range of community, national and global justice movements were mobilised to shift the centre(s) of Anglo-European hegemony. As University of California - Santa Barbara organisers of a conference that observed the 40 year anniversary of the 1968 student movements note, these movements: 

began a process of liberation from the intellectual McCarthyism of Cold War pedagogies that kept students from imagining themselves as legitimate sources of a new democratic politics for the 20th century….Students saw themselves as the agents of change within the university, contesting disciplinary knowledge and the disciplining structures of education and in the process creating new disciplines and new approaches to studying the soul of their nations. (www.blackstudies.ucsb.edu/1968/scope.htm)

Nearly 50 later, University of Cape Town students initiated the Rhodes Must Fall protest to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from the campus. This action gained strength as a broader movement about the pervasive institutional racism cultivated by and through the country’s colonial history. #RhodesMustFall galvanised mobilisation on other South African campuses, and similar campaigns in the UK and the US. Their work has extended beyond the physicality, imposition and reproduction of colonialist knowledge formations and the racialized social orders they have given rise to, to failures to productively and genuinely mirror and engage student diversity, to issues of student fees and housing, staff diversity, hiring and promotion, and the exploitative treatment of university employees of colour.


Students at the London School of Economics mobilised around the question of the ‘whiteness’ of the curriculum (#whitecurriculum). In interviews (whitecurriculum.wordpress.com), one noted that whiteness needs to be understood within the wider histories of colonialism and imperialism. Another student observed that the problem is not just the provision of exclusively Eurocentric or western perspectives, but that they are presented as universal truths, rather than as specific to particular cultures, worldviews and interests. Another emphasised that the exclusive celebration of white authors and ideas is further problematic in that they are fundamentally based on and thus continually reproduce the negative stereotypes of people of colour and non-western cultures that have been constructed and empowered by these historical projects.  (https://rmfoxford.wordpress.com/)

Decolonial Dialogues at UCD

In step with a long tradition of intellectuals, activists and scholars, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni makes the argument that the very structures of the academy reproduce the same centre-periphery power relations that underpin global inequalities: ‘raw’ data collected in the periphery feeds the generation of theory in the metropole, only to

be recirculated as ‘knowledge’ back in the periphery. The work of scholars in the Global South, she argues, is marginalised further through a variety of institutional strategies that discredit, appropriate, ignore, or exclude it.  In this context, it can be shocking yet unsurprising that, ‘Despite being an institution that specialises in Africa and Asia, the curricula at SOAS are not adequately representative of thinkers that emerge from the Global South’ (www.soasunion.org).

Thus, moves to decolonise curricula are centred on notions of pluriversality and polycentricity – multiple knowledges from a multitude of centres – rather than the universalising of particular worldviews. As Ngũgĩ  wa Thiong’o observed many years ago, ‘there could never be only one centre from which to view the world but that different people in the world had their culture and environment at the centre. The relevant question [is] therefore how one centre relate[s] to other centres...’

The goals that underpin decolonising the curriculum are, therefore, not about simplified notions of the inclusion or replacement of sources and material. They involve developing ways of un-thinking and re-thinking ‘received’ knowledges, through critical, collaborative, reflexive encounters with - to use Escobar's words - knowledges and worlds ‘otherwise’. Nor do they constitute a project solely about ‘race’, but the intersections and juxtapositions, the affinities and incongruences across the landscapes of possible standpoints and positionalities, experiences and embodiments, circumstances and practices, powers and agencies that we inhabit together. Decolonising the curriculum is about expanding the foundations of what we study, the ways we teach, learn and interact with one another, and the reach of the understandings we cultivate in ways that reflect and engage what we all bring with us to university life at UCD. In these ways, it’s about ‘doing diversity’ in a different way.

The aim of the Decolonial Dialogues Platform at UCD is to provide a space for staff and students to cultivate a community of practice in which to collectively and collaboratively discuss, support and develop ideas, activities, projects and practices that realise and make manifest the transformative and mutually edifying potentials of our different ways of being, thinking and doing.  We will soon be making available various on-line spaces to support this work.

For more information contact: Dyuti (dyuti.chakravarty@ucdconnect.ie) or Emma (penneye@tcd.ie)

© 2017 Alice Feldman

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