Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Imperialism and educational projects

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Imperialism has left its lasting impression on many of our systems in society today, with roots bound in the imposed colonisation from the West onto underdeveloped countries[1]. By discussing neo-colonialism the discourse of imperialism distances itself from purely a historical sense, and by specifically delving into academic imperialism we see examples of contemporary colonialism in educational schemes from the United Nations (UN) in developing worlds. The positive and negative perspectives of these schemes will be examined, through an analysis of scholars’ thoughts and the motivations behind the schemes. Specifically discussing educational development projects which follow a Western academic structure, revealing that they are a form of academic imperialism.

Arguably, the dismantling of European empires after WW2 marked the end of imperialism[2](p.188), yet certain scholars, including Furedi, argue that though this may be a post-colonial era, it is not post-imperial as imperialism is not necessarily a formal construct.[2](p.189) More recently, scholars have defined imperialism as a broader concept; Galtung describes imperialism as a specific relation between a Centre and a Periphery, and between their respective centres and peripheries.[3](p.48) Such definitions will allow the identification of imperialism in the modern world.

Different arguments regarding the existence and cause for educational imperialism predominantly lie in two conflicting views for the causes of imperialism. Schumpeter argues that imperialism is the result of man’s psychological, irrational and instinctual inclination to war. He believes capitalism counteracts imperialism, as it provides an outlet through healthy competition, eliminating economic reasons for conquest, since free trade allows all nations to have equal terms in the global market.[3](p.34-6) Hence, the spread of schooling systems encouraging capitalism (Western systems) diminishes the incidence of imperialism, agreeing with neoclassical development theory that schooling is a liberating element.[3](p.42)

Lenin conversely, claims that imperialism is an inevitable development of capitalism as monopolistic conditions replace competitive ones, forcing monopolies and oligopolies to expand to survive.[3](p.39-40) Therefore, global education policies from the West, which promote capitalism, allow countries to be controlled by advanced countries’ monopolies, resulting in imperialism and exploitation.[3](p.43) This echoes neo-Marxists and dependency theorists, including Andre Gunder Frank, who argue that certain countries have been made dependent by capitalism, specifically the IMF and World Bank, who have restructured the world economy for the continued flow of wealth to the West.[2](p.188-9) In academic teaching, any positive effects are felt solely by the powerful core, whilst education for the periphery is used by the core to perpetuate the current hierarchy, thus allowing for educational imperialism to occur.[3](p.57)

In 2015 the UN set the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), scaled over a number of underdeveloped areas, as a ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future’.[4] One of these (SDG4) focuses on education in third world countries to, according to the UN ensure all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development through a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciating cultural diversity.[5] Generally, the UN’s actions are not questioned by society. However, it is important to reflect on whether this educational intervention is an effective platform for genuinely improving education or whether it promotes a form of neo-colonialism. Could the UN’s goal for intervention be to further the control of its leading countries? Or trying to better education globally, by teaching students the importance of the intersection between economics, social justice, and environmental sustainability to foster a better understanding and implementation of sustainable development?[6]

In critically analysing the intervention of NGOs such as the UN in the developing world it cannot be denied that the roots of these goals are firmly planted in the values held by Western Europe and the US. The emphasis in SDG4 is upon the term ‘global citizenship’ which can broadly be interpreted as globalisation, a more socially acceptable term used in popular discourse to infiltrate the culture and infrastructure of a less powerful country by breaking down resistance to foreign transnational corporations.[7] Thus it could easily be suggested that the UN’s educational goals are a form of neo-colonialism imposing their own intellectual value systems and ‘capital accumulation through academic means’.[8](p.1)

Further to this, the UN, a colonial creation, is also emphasising the term sustainable development. According to Sumner[8], this is defined as development to meet the needs of the present without compromising future generations, however, in doing so we are effectively ‘supporting the competitive forms of human engagement that build the wealth of the private elite’(p.12). Consequently, every aspect of the education system in highly developed countries will simply be rolled out to less developed countries hidden behind the pretext of ‘sustainable development’ and thus perpetuating the extreme elitism in Western academia. This was observed with the preceding Millennium Development Goals which slowed progress, due to a heightened emphasis on targets and national averages.[9] The diversity in education we appreciate today will be rendered into academic homogeneity as every country becomes a ‘blueprint’ of a western superpower.

Despite the indication that the SDGs are perhaps the interference of a colonialist entity, it can also be argued that academic imperialism is not always detrimental to the countries involved. If a purely theoretical economic lens is adopted, then Western education encouraging competitive capitalist thinking, thus promoting these types of markets, is actually beneficial. Competitive markets maximise welfare (the sum of consumer and producer surplus) and produce no deadweight loss.[10](p.382) Indeed, one of the reasons for the study of these markets is that they are viewed as the standard against which other markets should be compared.[10](p.251) Hence, an interdisciplinary conflict can be observed, if, instead of viewing the issue from a sociological perspective, it is viewed using only economic theory. Furthermore, as Rothkopf reflects, globalisation works towards cohesion by removing cultural barriers and taking a vital step towards a more stable world with better lives for its citizens. Rothkopf heralds cultural imperialism as a marker of the progress of civilisation.[11] Thus parallels can be drawn with academic imperialism and in this case the UN’s education goals, perhaps this academic imperialism is a step towards enhanced understanding and communication between intellectual communities.

The UN’s SDGs for education are glorified in society as the selfless improvement of education in the developing world. However, as we have discussed it is not so simple; many of the methods and approaches are not in line with the genuine need and serve mainly the imposing party. Undeniably, these goals promote a positive agenda of equal opportunities and removing inequalities[12] but that’s not to say that academic imperialism cannot become a by-product of these seemingly innocent educational schemes, producing adverse effects equal to or outweighing the claimed benefits. Truthfully only time can tell what impact these educational schemes have on a countries future intellectual independence and growth, but we can conclude that these schemes exhibit academic imperialism to varying extents. Understanding the inherent consequences of these interventions is essential for developing positive future projects for the furthering of global education by taking a more interdisciplinary, holistic approach which accounts for the culture and values of the society which is being developed, for example by involving ethnographic research to create a curriculum suited to the region being taught.


  1. United Nations. Country classification. Available from: [Accessed: 2018, December 9].
  2. a b c Bush B. Imperialism and postcolonialism. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited; 2006.
  3. a b c d e f Carnoy M. Education as cultural imperialism. New York: David McKay Company, Inc.; 1974.
  4. United Nations. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Available from: [Accessed 17th November 2018].
  5. United Nations. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4. Available from: [Accessed 17th November 2018].
  6. United Nations. Education for All Agenda. Available from: [Accessed 18th November 2018].
  7. Laxer G. Radical transformative nationalisms confront the U.S. empire. Current Sociology. 2003;51(2): 133-152. Available from: doi:10.1177/00113921030512006.
  8. a b Sumner J. From Academic Imperialism to the Civil Commons: Institutional Possibilities for Responding to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Interchange. 2008;39(1): 77-94. Available from: doi:10.1007/s10780-008-9045-4.
  9. Anon. Progress for Children: beyond averages learning from the MDGs. United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Report number: 11, 2015.
  10. a b Perloff JM. Microeconomics. 8th ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited; 2018.
  11. Rothkopf D. In Praise of Cultural Imperialism?. Foreign Policy. 1997;(107): 38-53. Available from: doi:10.2307/1149331.
  12. Sustainable Development Goals Fund. Goal 4: Quality education. Available from:[Accessed 18th November 2018].