The Multiversity Higher Education Project was launched in 2004 in Penang with a workshop on the redesign of social science curricula in Third World universities. A number of academics, activists, and teachers from Africa, Asia, and the Americas contributed papers and lectures reporting on the state of social sciences in their respective locales and how to move beyond the Eurocentric models of the social sciences prevalent in the formerly colonized world. Since then, there have been several conferences on related themes, such as Decolonizing Universities, Resisting Hegemony, and Academic imperialism. TV Multiversity runs in parallel with and is informed by many of the ideas presented in these conferences and workshops, clips from which are available on the TV Multiversity channels on YouTube, Vimeo, and TVU Networks (see the links provided below), and readers can learn more about the Multiversity Higher Education project through Multiworld India.
They may have been born, or at least developed their contemporary forms, in the West, but those academic disciplines have now gone global. From Cairo to Kuala Lumpur, any survey of universities in the world today will reveal an almost complete consensus on what constitutes academic disciplines, with the modern Western knowledge-system reigning supreme. This can be explained in part by colonialism: the European and American powers that colonized the world brought with them not only their guns and laws, but also their sciences, and more often than not imposed those sciences on the colonized peoples. However, long after the colonizers were driven out, their sciences and institutions remain, while the former colonial metropoles are often the most sought-after places to obtain an education and training in any of the modern academic disciplines.
Whatever the discipline or location, most courses of study in most universities today follow a similar trajectory: first identifying the great European or American men of each discipline and then drilling their theories and practices as if they were universal, while ignoring or undermining most other forms of knowledge. Thus in biology genetics dominates, having supplanted cell biology and the analysis of ecosystems after Western scientists isolated the double-helix structure of DNA, while completely ignoring Islamic biological knowledge. Physics dwells on Isaac Newton’s model, with a taste of Einstein's relativity and modern quantum mechanics for the adventurous, but neglecting the pre-Newtonian physics that enabled Muslim architects to build magnificent structures. The staple of any mathematics degree is the differential and integral calculus, but with most indigenous knowledge (such as the Muslim roots of algebra) filtered carefully through the modern worldview. Students of philosophy run the gamut of Western thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Sartre, but with no more than a passing nod to the great Muslim philosophers: Ghazali, Ibn Rushd and Mulla Sadra, for instance. Western medicine is based on a mechanistic Cartesian model, with mastery of surgical and pharmaceutical technique being the ultimate goal; the humoral medicine developed and practiced by pioneering Muslim physicians such as Ibn Sina is undermined or even ridiculed. Western chemistry strips away the spiritual aspects of its Muslim ancestor, alchemy. Sociology often begins with the work of Durkheim, while Weber is having a revival, but Ibn Khaldun receives little more than a historical footnote. Those studying economics will learn all about Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, and perhaps even Marx, before delving into Milton Friedman, neoliberalism and the techniques of transnational capitalism, but rarely will any course of study consider the economic and financial implications of the Islamic ban on usury. In short, from history and political science to agriculture and health care, Western knowledge is the only knowledge admitted to be valid and relevant today, and the only knowledge considered to have any claim to universality. Cherokee scholar Ward Churchill has aptly labeled this amalgam of Western thought and practice "White Studies," which is his succinct way of identifying what might be more politely, but also more cumbersomely, referred to as a "Euro-American-centric knowledge system." In any case, pursuing an education and training in White studies today means adhering to theories and practices that were developed largely alongside the emergence of Western modernity.
Graduates with a degree in a White studies academic discipline usually use their limited sense of empowerment to reproduce Western modernity. Muslims sometimes take comfort from the pious fraud that Western knowledge is the sum total of human knowledge, or that because Muslims had a hand in developing some of these sciences centuries ago they can continue to be enslaved by them now, in their modern, secular forms, with a clear conscience. The resulting pathological condition, often referred to as being "educated," eventually means in effect that one takes Western science (including the social sciences and humanities) as the arbiter of truth and the definition of reality, even in matters of religion and ethics. This means that in order to think one must do so through the lens of Western knowledge; and that unlimited technological progress and economic growth are accepted as the keys to human happiness. It means that quantity is more important than quality, and that technique and efficiency must govern every aspect of a de-sacralized life. Muslims looking for guidance and prosperity through White studies may find that the best they can attain is to practice Islam in private and let the West do the rest in public. This is equally true for anyone else attempting to live within or revive any number of traditional cultures, because most of the world is firmly ensconced today in a system created and maintained by the purveyors of White studies.
One such effort, in the social sciences, is currently being made by the Multiworld Network and the Multiversity Group. In November last year, a meeting was held in Penang, Malaysia, entitled "Redesign of Social Science Curricula," in which the social sciences in the Third World were evaluated and proposals put forth for their redesign. It was the first meeting of its kind: in particular, its organizers and conveners were determined not to invite any scholars from the West, or former colonial powers, their intention being to keep the work in the hands of Third World peoples. A few of those who were invited are based for the time being in Western universities, an African-American scholar and a South Asian scholar residing in the US and a West African scholar living in France, but they were invited because of their reputations for questioning and challenging the disciplines in which they work. Apart from these few exceptions, most of the participants came directly from universities, institutions and organizations based in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
The first day’s panel sessions were highlighted by a talk from Syed Hussein Alatas, who revisited his idea of "the captive mind." This was followed by the present author, who outlined the problem of "white studies and the university in ruins," and who asked whether it was better to "vacate the space" or "dwell in the ruins." Vinay Lal brought the busy first day to a close with a discussion of "history and its enslavements." The second day of the meeting was dedicated to reports from social scientists currently working in South-East Asia and Africa, with a focus on local languages. Clemen Aquino discussed the challenges of integrating local languages into psychology curricula in the Philippines, and Vimbai Chivaura of Zimbabwe discussed African cultures and languages as a knowledge-base for social-science curricula. These sessions were summed up by the Hong Kong based sociologist Fred Y.L. Chiu, who discussed other ways of doing social and cultural anthropology, based on the works of Afro-Asian scholars. The second day ended with an open discussion led by Ashis Nandy of Delhi, who had earlier circulated a note on possible follow-up activities to the meeting. Many of the papers read at the conference were published in the January-February 2005 issue of the journal Third World Resurgence, and a complete set of the proceedings was published by Other India Press in Goa.
The third day of panel sessions was dedicated to reports from various organizations and institutes on their innovative social-science-related activities, with emphasis on practice. Farid Alatas outlined his efforts at "creating our own sociology," based on his work with curriculum-development at Singapore University, and Sunil Sahasrabudhey of Benares, India, introduced "people's knowledge." Jorge Ishizawa from Peru discussed the work being done by the Proyecto Andino de Tecnologias Campesinas (PRATEC), and in particular their work with local peasant farmers, whose acceptance of the world as it is, coupled with a "passionate involvement in a nurturing relationship with everything that exists in the locality," has made the central Andes an important center of "cultivated biodiversity." The last session was a dual presentation by Wasif Rizvi and Yasmeen Bano of Pakistan, reflecting on the relationship between education and development.
After the panel sessions came a series of workshops dedicated to forming working groups to take on responsibility for furthering the meeting's goals, with several groups taking shape around the various social-science disciplines, the members of each agreeing to evaluate curricula in their own locales and to collaborate on designing improved or parallel curricula. There will be a follow-up meeting later this year to present these works. In addition to the workshop, a draft note was circulated outlining several further steps that might be taken: these proposals included making the meeting materials available to all participants and other interested parties, to set up panels to evaluate existing textbooks for biases, to identify less-prejudiced textbooks, and to produce resources that can be adopted by university programs and professors. Some less modest ambitions were also suggested, such as organizing exchange-programs to promote more intensive collaborative work, undertaking translations into vernacular languages that profit-minded publishers generally ignore, and producing bibliographic essays by southern scholars, which can serve as handbooks to what is happening outside the West.
[This article is by J. Progler, a co-creator of Multiversity. For a collection of related videos, visit the following TV Multiversity playlists on YouTube: Rethinking Social Sciences, Resisting Hegemony, Academic Imperialism, and Decolonising Universities. Notes on the latter conference are available on the TV Multiversity blog here and here. Additional relevant media are available on the TV Multiversity channels on TVU Networks and Vimeo, and background and related news on the Multiversity project are at Multiworld India.]