Mini-Series: The curriculum as a site of social justice

Picture of an indigenous woman from Latin America superimposed over a picture of the exterior of the University of Edinburgh Library building.
Image Credit: Graphic Design by Joe Arton. Original Images by Lara Natalia Unsplash and University of Edinburgh Special Collections.

In this eighth post for the Mini-series “Curriculum as a site for Social Justice and Anti-Discrimination”, Julie Cupples Professor of Human Geography and Cultural Studies describes how she structures her Honours course around two related theories of colonial injustice: racial patriarchal capitalism and imminent planetary collapse and encourages students to question the premises of their education and training in the westernized university…

I teach an Honours course called Development and Decolonization in Latin America. It aims to explore the cultural, economic, political and epistemic legacies of the European conquest of the 15th and 16th centuries and the fraught 20th century project of development and the multiple ways it’s been imposed, negotiated, resisted and rearticulated by institutions, social movements, and ordinary citizens in persistent conditions of coloniality—in other words, what has ensued after formal colonial administrations have ceased to exist.  This course is also an introduction to decolonial theory that interrogates and calls into question the Eurocentric premises of our education and training in the westernized university by introducing students to alternative worldviews rooted in the lived experiences of the popular sectors—namely, Indigenous and Afrodescendant peoples, campesinos, the urban poor, and people with nondominant genders and sexualities who often think with and from alterity.

My course seeks to tackle the fact that university students are led to believe their courses expose them to diverse perspectives and critical thinking, but in the vast majority of cases, they are only exposed to Eurocentric thought and at best to Eurocentric critiques of Eurocentrism. Coloniality is not then just something to be found in Latin America; it is also in our own institution and in the broader higher education landscape. It can be located in our curricula, our built environments, our institutional narratives (especially the official institutional celebration of the Scottish Enlightenment), and our policies and practices, especially those around tuition fees, spending, recruitment and promotion.

The course is multivocal. Through readings and video materials, students get to hear the voices of Latin American and US presidents, World Bank officials, members of the military forces, wealthy extractivist investors, and disaster capitalists. They also get to hear the voices of the subordinated and of people in struggle: Berta Cáceres in Honduras, the people of La Puya in Guatemala, survivors of the Bojayá massacre in Colombia, survivors of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Zapatista rebels, feminist movements against femicide and impunity in Ciudad Juárez, devotees of Santa Muerte, the muxe of Oaxaca, opponents of the privatization of water and natural gas in Bolivia, the Raizal people of the San Andrés archipelago, and workers who recovered factories in Argentina.  The voices of these subordinated and struggling people are accorded epistemological privilege.

My central premise is that we’re living in a conjuncture characterized by two related forms of colonial injustice: racial patriarchal capitalism and imminent planetary collapse. The stakes are high, and the course content is often depressing. Contemporary Latin America is for example characterized by the frequent state-led murder of environmental defenders who oppose predatory extractivist practices such as gold mines, hydroelectric dams, and soy plantations, and who are seeking to defend life and territory. Extractivist and other colonial-capitalist practices are driven by what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls abyssal thinking. This Eurocentric mode of thought renders the knowledges of those who reside on the subordinated side of the abyssal line as non-existent and non-admissible, and results in their violent dispossession and dehumanization.

These examples encourage students to see that not only is another world possible, but to be part of its creation we need to work with a new (new for us, but not for decolonial activists in Latin America) set of theoretical, analytical and political tools. After decades of “development” as a form of top-down expertise delivered from North to South, which has often done more harm than good, it’s clear that we have more to learn from subalternized Latin Americans than they have to learn from us. Non-Eurocentric ontological practices and ancestrality constitute our best hope to get out of the current crisis. So, in the course, we seek to replace the sociology of absences with a sociology of emergences that doesn’t separate humans from nature, or spirituality from science. Following Sylvia Wynter, we disrupt the biocentricity of western approaches to the human and accept the interventions of nonhumans (what Marisol de la Cadena calls earth-beings) in the making of socionatural worlds. We are open to taking seriously the multiple forms of storytelling that bring worlds into being, to the persistence of the colonial wound among colonized peoples, and to ways of knowing that are dismissed and relegated to the category of the non-rational, the fantastical or the superstitious by the agents of Eurocentrism. My hope is that students can find practical and political inspiration in the course theory that might encourage them to think about the kinds of solidarity that can forge transformative connections across worlds. For example, students might be able to make connections between the concept and practices of buen vivir in Latin America and political concerns with degrowth and commoning that are taking hold in the global North.

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Julie Cupples

Julie Cupples is a Professor of Human Geography and Cultural Studies and the head of the Research Institute of Geography and the Lived Environment. Her work is inspired by a range of decolonial and feminist thought. She works mostly in Latin America and is currently engaged in an AHRC-funded video project entitled Creole Connections which involves documenting the cultural, familial and geopolitical connections between Nicaragua, Colombia and the San Andrés archipelago. She is also co-leading a GCRF project in Guatemala that explores the decolonizing aspirations of rural Guatemalans who are exposed to racism, poverty and environmental risk. She is the author or editor of seven books, the most recent of which is Producing and Contesting Urban Marginality: Interdisciplinary and Comparative Perspectives.

Twitter: @juliecupples79

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