Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Decolonising knowledge systems

A conference on “Decolonising Our Universities” held in June in Penang, Malaysia, offered interesting perspectives on the need for and ways to foster epistemologies and pedagogies that are devoid of Eurocentric and colonial bias and prejudice.

In a conference held in Penang, Malaysia from 27 to 29 June 2011 and titled “Decolonising Our Universities”, scholars and academicians from the erstwhile “colonised world” gathered to discuss ways of “decolonising our universities” from influences of Eurocentrism that pervaded academics. The presentations were not merely academic but very activist, with the clarion call for some form of Renaissance or resisting Eurocentric hegemony or both dominating proceedings. At the end of it all, the message was well taken. At least in the social sciences, which predominated the discourse on academics, there was a strong case for decolonisation: for theorisations that were not limited to the European cultural milieu, for breaking away from European thought, its categories, concepts and from the myth that they were originators of modern civilisation, and for the re-establishment of the non-Europeans as “knowing subjects” and not “passive objects” perceived through the agency of Europeans.

The basis for that discourse was laid out in a keynote by the Indian ambassador to Bhutan and popular writer, Pavan Varma who lamented the effects of colonisation on the Indian mind, which for him, still persisted today. The derision shown for Indian culture by the colonial masters had been “internalised by the ruled”, the colonisers created an education system that suited their interests, and importantly Indian languages lost their salience during colonial rule. Political scientist and social psychoanalyst Ashis Nandy as a discussant added that colonialism of the British variety was an upgrade over the “earlier form of colonialism” associated with the Spanish and the Portuguese. The British colonialists’ enterprise involved a “seepage of the values of the Enlightenment” but was equally and even more dangerous to the natives of the colonised lands, particularly India. The rampant nature of colonisation increased with the entry of the East India Company and was imbued with the values of utilitarianism represented by the likes of Mill and Bentham, justifying colonialism on the need for “progress”, enforcing natives to “climb the inclined plane of history to achieve what the Europeans had already achieved”. Another discussant, politician Mani Shankar Aiyar did not agree – colonialism, warts and all had also an element of interactivity – which was utilised by Indian nationalists and natives for their own progress. So much so that today in the age of globalisation, Indians have raised themselves to be developed. In Aiyar’s view, a “balanced” review of the advent of colonialism suggests that the consequences were not so much an entrenchment of the culture of the colonised to the detriment of that of the ruled, but the utilisation of the interactions with the colonisers to chart a “new synthesis” by the ruled themselves. Essentially, the process of decolonisation was concomitant with the process of exchange of ideas and values from the outside world.

Eurocentrist Sociology

The keynote session, albeit debating colonisation in its generics did set an important note that was explored in specifics in other sessions, especially by Malaysian sociologist Syed Farid Alatas who spoke on “Teaching Social Theory as an Alternative Discourse” to Eurocentrist sociology. Alatas argued that the countering of Eurocentrist sociology in the South was possible only through a thorough study of it using the specificities of the local. In other words, a correction of the European bias in social theory was impossible without critical engagement with western thinkers such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim in that canon. Alatas invoked the works of Filipino thinker and activist, Jose Rizal to make this point. He also argued as to how, while universalisation of sociology was an imperative, it could only be done by providing space to various civilisational voices apart from the usual European ones. In other words, recognition of social science work in the South in the form of local knowledge systems and publications in various languages were due in order to achieve a “universal sociology”.

And that certainly was lacking in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) World Social Science Report 2010. Darryl Macer, regional advisor for the Social and Human Sciences in Asia and Pacific unit of UNESCO, in his paper, “Decolonising Social Sciences across the World”, clearly found that the “perceived knowledge gap” between the global North and the South according to the report was a consequence of unaccounted factors (in the report) such as

lack of recognition for academic research not conducted in European languages; low recognition of non-European authors and institutions; differences in fundamental paradigms of thought and concepts of what is social science; and the need for greater South-South collaboration and exchange programmes.

Besides the above, there were other reasons for the “knowledge gap” – expressed among others in the wide gap in number of research publications between those in the North and the South. Some had to do, according to other presenters, with the lack of adequate funding for social science research and of enough autonomy for research institutions, for example in south Asia. But there was also the larger problem of a Eurocentric view of social sciences, something that needed correction. The conference decided to send a note to UNESCO asking for addressing this problem, besides suggesting remedies to the factors contributing to the “knowledge divide”.

Indictment of Eurocentrism

Ashis Nandy’s point about justifications of colonialism by the colonisers using the logic of Enlightenment values such as “progress” and “revolution” were alluded to and expanded upon in an interesting paper, titled, “History ‘Outside’ the West” by Vinay Lal. In his analytics of history and historiography as viewed by the British thinkers such as James Mill – whose works “exercised an incalculable influence” on the British civil servants – Lal argues as to how Europe’s own history was to serve as template for “all history”. The categories of “ancient, medieval and modern” that explained the European past were “assumed to be the ‘natural’ categories through which one might interpret any history”. Ashis Nandy’s expressed view on “progress” played itself out in the idea of “temporal linearity” being the informing principle of all contemporary history and “perforce condemn[ed] the people outside Europe to live someone else’s history, with consequences that have been seen across all domains of life”. Lal, echoing Alatas argued as to how in the discourse of “world history”, “the colonised and now underdeveloped subjects had no place, except, of course, as the objects of the wise discourse of knowing subjects”. World history, as much as social theory, was yet another form of colonising knowledge and the need therefore was for a history of many worlds – “our worlds”. Vinay Lal’s exposition was certainly an indictment of Eurocentric bias in historicising in the west, but it is to be stated that present-day study of history in countries such as India is not necessarily imbued with such biases.

Decolonising as a theme was extended to the field of psychotherapy, as presentations by African scholars, Augustine Nwoye and Akmalofe Adebayo, argued for an indigenous African psychotherapy challenging Eurocentric world views – both for pedagogy and practice, respectively. Nwoye in his paper, “An Outline and Rationale for the Inclusion of African Psychotherapy as an Undergraduate Course in an African University”, specifically outlined a course for African psychotherapy for undergraduate study. Adebayo propounded his idea of “Nchetaka” as a “radical and indigenous” African “academic praxis of psychology”, devoid of Eurocentric biases, in his paper titled, “A Recovering African Psychologist’s Narratives of Resistance and the Quest for Our Own Story”. The emphasis for Adebayo was to adopt a social constructivist approach that was biased towards indigenous methodologies such as “story telling” for psychotherapy. Adebayo’s paper was an interesting case of decolonising a field of humanities in praxis.

Mathematician C K Raju, in a presentation, titled “Decolonising Math and Science Education”, argued that colonisation as a process extended to the natural sciences as well. Raju, basing his presentation in favour of the traditional Indian notion of pramana – empirical proof in mathematics as opposed to the philosophy of “formalism”, argued that there existed a religious – Christian – bias in “formal” mathematics, and it was necessary to unlearn this form of mathematics that dominated curricula across the world. The validity of the argument was beyond the ken of this writer, but perhaps Raju could have tempered his views which included ad hominem attacks on scientists such as Albert Einstein. Raju’s presentation was also based on his copious works on the origins of calculus in India, the analysis of “infinite series in India” and others. His salient point was that mathematics and natural sciences had to be “de-theologised”, and that, an alternate history and philosophy of mathematics had to be worked out and taught in universities.

Emphasis on decolonisation was an imperative even in legal education in the South, as Malaysian law professor Shad Saleem Faruqi pointed out in his presentation titled, “Western Intellectual Imperialism in Malaysian Legal Education”. He argued that university curricula in the South were devoid of awareness of Asian and African contribution to knowledge on “evaluation of right and wrong, of justice and fairness, of poverty and development”, etc. Indigenisation of law syllabi was necessary, albeit not to the exclusion of western knowledge paradigms, but to resist the hegemony of western ideas, which had fallen short in elobarating human rights, public law, environmentalism and in the building of a just world. This point was illustrated in detail by South African professor, Shadrack Gutto, who argued how Eurocentrism was manifest in the postcolonial continuities in African legal systems, which militated against the interests of the African people even today.

Other presenters also built upon on the theme of Eurocentrism preventing the ability of people of the South from constructing their own systems of knowledge drawing from their rich histories. Molefi Asante argued for an Africocentric creation of knowledge and education systems, drawing upon the need to preserve the best of African ancestral traditions and working for a renaissance of the glorious African past of the Egyptian (Kemet), Nubian civilisations among others. He evocatively denounced the Eurocentric idea that the Enlightenment was an “age of reason” considering that Africa was most at risk during this period of colonisation. His paper was titled, “The Philosophical Bases for an African University – Designing Afrocentric Curricula for African Universities”. Discussants however cautioned that the need for yet another “centricism” – Afrocentrism – would defeat the purpose, as the idea was to counter the hegemony of Eurocentricism and work towards an inclusive “universalism”.

Islamisation of Social Sciences?

Presentations on the need for the Islamisation of social sciences were problematic. Directly applying theological beliefs to “social science” must surely be counterproductive, but that was not the theme of presentations from some west Asian scholars who strongly argued for the rootedness of social science within Islamic tenets.

The last session featured the attempts at creating repositories of knowledge and institutions that were stripped of Eurocentric influences, biases and epistemology. Environmentalist Claude Alvares presented a paper on “Alternatives to University Pedagogy”, which were refreshing and interesting to hear about. This paper argued for the “deprofessionalisation of the university system”, making learning more interesting and to combine experience settings and collegiality to go with learning. But would it require this to completely do away with the “university system” as it exists today, as Alvares – perhaps facetiously – argued?

A presentation on the “Swaraj University” by its founder Manish Jain exemplified one such model of alternate institution that Alvares had in mind. Innovative teaching methods, curricula and learning from experience marked the goals of this university, which is attempting to do away with the formalistic and “ritualistic” forms of established university teaching. In this reporter’s opinion, the effort is laudable, but the system surely cannot be “scaled up” for all forms of learning and teaching.

All in all, the conference on “decolonising our universities” offered insightful perspectives on the need and ways to foster epistemologies and pedagogies that are devoid of Eurocentric and colonial bias and prejudice. Having said that the dangers of this turning out to be a form of “nativism” and even perhaps intolerance of any form of western knowledge are inherent. There was in some of the papers and discussions an element of over-celebration of the native and recourse to the un-scientific.

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s invocation of Gandhi (Young India, 1 June 1921, p 170) is well worth mentioning here as the South endeavours to strip its universities of Eurocentrism –

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.

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