Confronting the Racial-Colonial Foundations of US Higher Education

Sharon Stein
Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education  •  Volume 3  •  2018  •  pp. 077-098

This paper invites readers to engage with analyses that diagnose the racial-colonial foundations of US universities as the root cause of many contemporary higher education challenges. To do so, it traces the “underside” of violence that subsidized three moments in US higher education history: the colonial era; land-grant legislation; and the post-War “golden age.” I argue that confronting these foundational violences, and our complicity in them, is a necessary part of any effort to unravel the harmful inherited patterns of representation, relationship, and resource distribution that continue to shape the present.

This conceptual article reads mainstream histories of US higher education against the grain, and in conversation with critiques offered by decolonial and critical ethnic studies, in an effort to address the historical and ongoing racial-colonial conditions of possibility for our institutions.

This paper contributes to scholarship on the foundations of higher education by inviting engagements with often-disavowed dimensions of those foundations.

Many of US higher education’s greatest achievements have not merely happened alongside, but have also been subsidized by racial-colonial dispossession. The fact that the higher education field rarely addresses these entangled histories may not be primarily due to a lack of information, but rather due to strong affective, material, and intellectual investments in the continuation of existing systems.

In addition to pluralizing our analyses of higher education’s foundations, scholars and practitioners will need to grapple with the difficulties and discomforts of facing up to the contemporary implications of those foundations.

As for practitioners, in addition to pluralizing our analyses of higher education’s foundations, scholars and practitioners will need to grapple with the difficulties and discomforts of facing up to the contemporary implications of those foundations.

With regard to both the ethical imperatives and political efficacy of responding to contemporary challenges, further research is needed that traces both the continuities and disjunctures between the past and the present of higher education.

higher education, history, foundations, capitalism, colonialism, racism
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