What is Colonial Education?

The process of colonization involves one nation or territory taking control of another nation or territory either through the use of force or by acquisition. As a byproduct of colonization, the colonizing nation implements its own form of schooling within their colonies. Two scholars on colonial education, Gail P. Kelly and Philip G. Altbach, define the process as an attempt “to assist in the consolidation of foreign rule” (1).

The Purpose of Colonial Education

The idea of assimilation is important to colonial education. Assimilation involves the colonized being forced to conform to the cultures and traditions of the colonizers. Gauri Viswanathan points out that “cultural assimilation [is] … the most effective form of political action” because  “cultural domination works by consent and often precedes conquest by force” (85). Colonizing governments realize that they gain strength not necessarily through physical control, but through mental control. This mental control is implemented through a central intellectual location, the school system, or what Louis Althusser would call an “ideological state apparatus.” Kelly and Altbach argue that “colonial schools…sought to extend foreign domination and economic exploitation of the colony” (2) because colonial education is “directed at absorption into the metropole and not separate and dependent development of the colonized in their own society and culture” (4). Colonial education strips the colonized people away from their indigenous learning structures and draws them toward the structures of the colonizers (see Frantz Fanon).

Much of the reasoning that favors such a learning system comes from supremacist ideas of the colonizers. Thomas B. Macaulay asserts his viewpoints about British India in an early nineteenth century speech. Macaulay insists that no reader of literature “could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” He continues, stating, “It is no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.” The ultimate goal of colonial education is this: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” While all colonizers may not have shared Macaulay’s lack of respect for the existing systems of the colonized, they do share the idea that education is important in facilitating the assimilation process.

The Impact of Colonial Education

Often, the implementation of a new education system leaves those who are colonized with a limited sense of their past. The indigenous history and customs once practiced and observed slowly slip away (see Paul Gilroy: The Black Atlantic). Growing up in the colonial education system, many colonized children enter a condition of hybridity, in which their identities are created out of multiple cultural forms, practices, beliefs and power dynamics. Colonial education creates a blurring that makes it difficult to differentiate between the new, enforced ideas of the colonizers and the formerly accepted native practices. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a citizen of the once colonized Kenya, displays his anger about the damage that colonial education wreaks on colonized peoples. He asserts that the process “annihilate[s] a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves” (Decolonising the Mind 3).

Not only does colonial education eventually create a desire to disassociate with native heritage, but it affects the individual and the sense of self-confidence. Thiong’o believes that colonial education instills a sense of inferiority and disempowerment with the collective psyche of a colonized people. In order to eliminate the harmful, lasting effects of colonial education, postcolonial nations must connect their own experiences of colonialism with other nations’ histories. A new educational structure must support and empower the hybrid identity of a liberated people.

Case Study

Kelly and Altbach define “classical colonialism” as the process when one separate nation controls another separate nation (3). However, another form of colonization has been present in America for many years. The treatment of the Native Americans falls into the category of “internal colonization,” which can be described as the control of an independent group by another independent group of the same nation-state (Kelly and Altbach 3). Although the context of the situation is different, the intent of the “colonizers” is identical. This includes the way in which the educational system is structured. Katherine Jensen indicates that “the organization, curriculum, and language medium of these schools has aimed consistently at Americanizing the American Indian” (155). She asks: “If education was intended to permit native people mobility into the mainstream, we must ask why in over three centuries it has been so remarkably unsuccessful?” (155). In a supporting study of 1990, census statistics indicate that American Indians have a significantly lower graduation rate at the high school, bachelor, and graduate level than the rest of Americans.

Works Cited

  • Jensen, Katherine. “Civilization and Assimilation in the Colonized Schooling of Native Americans.” Education and the Colonial Experience. Ed. Gail P. Kelly and Philip G. Altbach. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1984. 117-36.
  • Kelly, Gail P. and Philip G. Altbach. Introduction: “The Four Faces of Colonialism.” Education and the Colonial Experience. Ed. Gail P. Kelly and Philip G. Altbach. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1984. 1-5.
  • Macaulay, Thomas B. “Minute on Indian Education.” History of English Studies Page. University of California, Santa Barbara. Web. April 3, 2012. <http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/rraley/research/english/macaulay.html>
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmith: Heinemann, 1981.
  • Viswanathan, Gauri. “Currying Favor: The Politics of British Educational and Cultural Policy in India, 1813-1854.” Social Text , No. 19/20 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 85-104

Author: John Southard, Fall 1997
Last edited: October 2017


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  2. What a fantastic piece of work…..in such a short script, you managed to place all the Post-Colonization syndrome which is now a Dominant problem globally….most wars including inter religious conflicts start with Ignorance and With hidden Identity Crisis, becomes a lot worst…I have formulated several Edutainment Platforms to address these issues. Hopefully, if implemented, will help make the world beautiful again…at least, more functional societies….a BIg thank you….what encouragement for concerned citizens….

  3. Awesome piece of work. Beautifully explained. I really agree with the comment that Colonizing governments realize that they gain strength through mental control.

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  5. Leticial mwedziunashe Reply

    Thank you for this enlightening article…very much beneficial

  6. Hadiza Muttaka Bako Reply

    Thank you so much.such good explanation in a minimized understandable form

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