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Childism and Decoloniality: a need for scholarly conversations

by Serena Iacobino

Since the 1950s, there have been numerous controversies in Europe concerning the teaching of colonialism, particularly when it comes to the responsibilities of European countries in relation to colonisation. A number of reports (United Nations, 2019; Parliamentary Commission, Experts Report, 2021) indicate that at the level of the Member States, colonialism is still too often taught as a history of progress, a presentation that reproduces certain forms of domination within institutions, particularly schools. Indeed, as Manço, Robert and Kalonji (2013) point out, education, the public space, the media and, more generally, European cultures are still strongly marked by coloniality. Furthermore, the United Nations identifies a lack of research on the specific history of schools as institutions of domination (United Nations, Report 2019). It seems, therefore, that a decolonisation of educational institutions is needed at both national and transnational levels.

Prompted by these controversies and by the 1978 writings of Edward Said, many studies have analysed colonial relations of domination within education. However few of them have taken into account ageist relations in the long history of modernity (Lorde, 1977; hooks, 2013). The concept of “ageism” thus still seems to encounter specific difficulties in its recognition as a social relation of domination. Yet the little-known writings of Peter Gstettner (1981) and those, twenty years later, of Radhika Viruru (2005), show the relationships between the new pedagogical sciences, developmental psychology and the conceptualisation of childhood (and youth) in the history of colonialism. More specifically, postcolonial and decolonial studies show the impossibility of thinking about the genealogies of our modern societies without taking into account colonial situations: pedagogical discourses and practices as well as the construction of the idea of "childhood" were constituted by multiple exchanges between the "metropoles" and the "settlements". The mechanisms of the European Empires and States are thus mutually and historically constitutive in the construction of relations between "race" and "age". In order to build a new paradigm for the theory of childhood studies, John Wall (2019) considers the epistemological transition from Childhood studies to Childism. By analogy with Feminism, Childism proposes a deconstruction of the history of Adultism, and reconstructs a new imaginary vision of the school system and social norms: the social understanding of, and attitudes towards childhood are historically rooted in the domination of children by adults. This historical and social vision of the child as a naturally “inferior” and “subaltern” being, is what needs to be deconstructed.

In fact, Childism follows the theory of childhood proposed by Philippe Ariès (1960), and later further elaborated by Becchi and Julia (1998), whose cross-referencing studies show how the attitude towards children has profoundly changed over the centuries, both qualitatively (in the feelings towards “childhood") and quantitatively (in the duration of "childhood"), in conjunction with the diffusion of the "school form" and colonisation in the sixteenth century. Indeed, Michel Foucault (2003) and then Radhika Viruru (2005) have noted a correlation between the disciplining of “children” and “youth” in European schools and the disciplining of colonised peoples: what Foucault calls the educationalisation of “youth” was also a project of coloniality.

Following these studies, Toby Rollo (2018) has demonstrated that violence and racism towards colonial children did not occur because they were being treated as adults and therefore violently removed from their “protective innocence”. In fact, it occurred because Black and colonized peoples were socially and naturally considered as children in the first place. In the history of children in Europe, the traditional and political places occupied by children was an archetypal site of naturalized violence and servitude by White adults. In other words, the infantilization of Blackness was not simply a colonial strategy of subjugation, but an ontological and binary construction between the adult (the colonizer, the human, the civilized) and the child (the colonized, the sub-human, the ignorant). This is an essential framework for White domination and White supremacy. Based on these observations, from the 1970’s more and more researchers and research laboratories in Europe and around the world are taking an interest in these issues and showing the need to start a discussion around Childism and Decoloniality studies.

Sami children being taught Norwegian, by Børretzen, S. A., NTB scanpix. ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

However, at present, the various works dealing with these issues remain scattered, little compared and isolated. In order to fill this gap, and taking into account the strong topicality of this research, there is a need to draw an innovative perspective from it, one that takes an international look at the intersection between colonial and age domination, in terms of education. Convening conversations between these scattered and isolated researches is needed for contributing to diverse efforts towards the decolonisation of education in contexts that have a history of colonising and infantilising ‘the primitive other’. This dialogue is necessary for two main reasons: on the one hand, it shows the interest of questioning the evidence built in the long history of which we are still part (in particular in relation to the representation of "child" or "subaltern"). On the other hand, it proves the need to question how this heritage tends to produce and reproduce relations of domination in the present, within European educational systems and in schools. Indeed, the decolonisation of education is not only a “strategy” or a “method” specific to each institution: it is the development of a cross-sectional view for the understanding of transnational systems of educational oppression, as well as educational resistance to this same oppression (Pereira, 2016).

There is thus a need for conversations that will make it possible to problematise the historicity of these relations of domination (of 'age' and 'race') within the various European educational systems by developing the intersection of Childism and Decoloniality as a research area.


Ariès, P. (1960). L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien Régime (Civilisations d'hier et d'aujourd'hui). Paris : Plon.

Becchi, E., & Julia, D. (1998). Histoire de l’enfance en Occident. Paris : Editions du Seuil.

Chambre des Représentants de Belgique (2021). Commission spéciale chargée d’examiner l’état indépendant du Congo et le passé colonial de la Belgique au Congo, au Rwanda et Burundi, ses conséquences et les suites qu’il convient d’y réserver. Rapport des experts, 26 octobre 2021.

Foucault, M. (2003). Le pouvoir psychiatrique. Cours au Collège de France. 1973-1974. Paris : Gallimard/Seuil.

Gstettner, P. (1981). La conquête de l' enfant par la science. De l'histoire de la discipline, Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hambourg : rororo-Sachbuch.

Haut Commissariat Droits de L’Homme des Nations Unies (2019). Déclaration aux médias du Groupe de travail d'experts des Nations Unies sur les personnes d'ascendance Africaine sur les conclusions de sa visite officielle en Belgique du 4 au 11 février 2019.

hooks, b. (2013/25). La pédagogie engagée. « Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines ». pp. 179-190. Disponible sur :

Lorde, A. (1997). Age, race, class and sex: Women redefining difference. Cultural Politics, 11. 374-380.

Manço, U., Robert, M.-T. et Kalonji, B. (2013) « Postcolonialisme et prise en charge institutionnelle des jeunes belgo-congolais en situation de rupture sociale (Anvers, Bruxelles) », African Diaspora, 6, 21-45.

Pereira, I. (2016). La pédagogie révolutionnaire décoloniale. Questions de classe(s). Disponible sur : decoloniale

Rollo, T. (2018). The Color of Childhood: The Role of the Child/ Human Binary in the Production of Anti-Black Racism. Journal of Black Studies, 1–23, DOIo:10.177/0021934718760769

Viruru, R. (2005). « The impact of postcolonial theory on early childhood education ». Journal of Education, No.35.

Wall, J. (2019). From childhood studies to childism: reconstructing the scholarly and social imaginations, Children's Geographies, DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2019.1668912

About the Author

Serena Iacobino is a doctoral student in History of Education at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the KU Leuven, Belgium. Her research focuses on the history of girls' education in Belgium and the Congo (DRC), between 1840-1960. She specializes at the intersections of gender studies, postcolonial and decolonial studies in education.

Join the Transnational Childism Colloquium on Thursday February 9, 2023, 9:00-11:00 am US ET, Online via Zoom, with Toby Rollo, Lucia Rabello de Castro, Tanu Biswas, Erica Burman and John Wall, click here: Events | Childism Institute

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