Postcolonialism Essay

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The study and theory of postcolonialism investigates history: the origins of colonialism during the age of discovery and exploration; the ensuing political, economic, and cultural struggles between colonizers and colonized peoples through the twentieth century; and the enduring effects of colonialism upon relationships between individuals, societies, and nations.

Whereas imperialism describes the expansion of a state from the center through economic and cultural domination and military force, the two major forces behind colonialism are economic exploitation and trade and settlement. Colonialism and imperialism have common features and differences. While they both are terms that imply subjugation of one group of people by another, imperialism works under the initiative of overt exploitation and extraction of wealth. Neocolonialism (i.e., new colonialism) contrasts with postcolonialism in that the postcolonial state remains in a situation of dependence on its former masters and the former masters continue to act in a colonialist manner toward formerly colonized states. Neocolonialism is oriented primarily to the cultural and economic relationships associated with development, dependency theory, and critical development theory. Postcolonialism examines the relations of domination and subjugation between and within nations, cultures, and societies. It signifies a field of inquiry concerned with the cultural, psychological, social, political, and economic interactions of colonizers and colonized people.

The term’s denotation varies, as the concept transcends disciplines. Edward Said’s Orientalism is considered a founding work of postcolonial theory, deconstructing the Western exoticizing of Middle, Near, and Far Eastern cultures, and rigorously explicating the ways in which this defining as “the other” reinforces occidental stereotypes and effectively precludes the self-representation of oriental voices. One major literary voice is Chinua Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease fictionally portray the stark position of those who must negotiate untenable positions between former colonizers and their own indigenous communities, while dealing with issues like bribery and corruption as virtual aliens in their own countries. Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi explain in nonfiction how colonizing education is a two-way street, in that the colonizers as well as the colonized produce and perpetuate knowledge claims that are epistemologically and ontologically biased and inherently subjective; the knowledge claims are rooted in a particular group’s collective heritage, which itself is in constant flux. These forms of education, founded on injustice, do sociopsychological violence to the identities of all parties, especially the subaltern.

Robert J. C. Young aligns the study of postcolonialism with Marxist political philosophy, committed to a more just and equitable society. Marxism historically provided the theoretical inspiration and most effective political practice for twentieth-century anticolonial resistance.

While imperialist and colonizing countries have largely withdrawn from direct political control, independent excolonies have not completely realized political and economic self-determination. Thus as its agenda, according to Young, postcolonialism critiques the forces of oppression and coercive domination that operate in the contemporary world. Young further asserts that postcolonialism is not a static poststructuralist intellectual exercise—it inherently warrants action.

Gandhi observed that education systems around the world, historically, have functioned as mechanisms for the maintenance and perpetuation of power structures in colonial relationships. Postcolonial thought directly informs the fields of comparative and international education, particularly in the understanding of the development and organization of schools and education systems, globalization, and curriculum and language policies. The theory is particularly helpful for understanding conflict and postconflict education in postcolonial contexts. Postcolonial theory indirectly influences domestic education in the subject areas of history, geography, sociology, economics, literacy, and civic and multicultural education.

John Willensky extends Said’s critique of Western naming, ordering, classifying, and emphasis on differences and explores how schools, curricula, and teaching methods have been shaped and influenced by the legacies of imperialism and colonialism. While acknowledging the value of knowledge gained during this period, he questions the resulting connection between having a Western comprehension of the world inextricably linked with the conquest of it. He recognizes that schools are actively responsive to diversity, multiculturalism, and multilingualism, and that the content of contemporary textbooks is carefully evaluated, but that the broad context of understanding difference and the role of schools in society can be informed by a postcolonial examination of education.


  1. Achebe, C. (1958). Things fall apart. New York: McDowell, Obolensky.
  2. Achebe, C. (1960). No longer at ease. New York: McDowell, Obolensky.
  3. Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Press.
  4. Memmi, A. (1965). The colonizer and the colonized. New York: Orion Press.
  5. Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Random House.
  6. Willensky, J. (1998). Learning to divide the world: Education at Empire’s end. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  7. Young, R. J. C. (2001). Post colonialism: An historical introduction. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

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