14 July 2011

Notes on Decolonising Universities (Part One)

On 27-29 June 2011, Multiversity held its fourth international conference in Penang, Malaysia, on the topic of 'Decolonising Our Universities.' Hosted by Citizens International and Universiti Sains Malaysia, the conference brought together academics, activists, journalists and students from the Global South to address the problem of Eurocentrism in university curricula and to develop alternatives and pathways of resistance. The conference went beyond critique with many participants sharing their experiences in decolonizing higher education by reporting on local initiatives from throughout Asia, Africa and the Mideast. The event was live streamed and also recorded. Complete sessions and excerpts are available on the TV Multiversity internet television channels and a book of the proceedings will be forthcoming later this year. This first of a two part report offers highlights from Day One.

In the Opening Session, S.M. Mohamed Idris, Chairperson of Citizens International, gave the welcoming address. He reminded participants that colonialism is not just a political and economic system; it is a 'malady' that has 'afflicated' the Global South on the level of culture, and the so-called 'independent' ruling elite has continued to operate without dismantling the old colonialist ways of thinking. Multiversity was launched a decade ago to reverse this tendency, and specifically to redesign curricula and resist Western hegemony. He called for participants to create 'socially useful sciences' and avoid meaningless hybrids. The next speaker, Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia, noted that previous educational systems are becoming dysfunctional and that it was necessary to create something new, different and concrete to replace the present system. An advisor to the Iranian Ministry of Higher Education, Asghar Zarei, was the third speaker. He observed that imperialism and education have implications for developing states, and that imperialism is about hegemony and gain. The Third World is on a road map drawn up by imperialist powers seeking hegemony, he insisted, and this involves channeling global scientific knowledge to serve the needs of the imperialists. He also noted that students who go abroad are part of the problem by working for research agendas established in the Global North. In his inaugural address, Malaysian Deputy Minister of Higher Education Saifuddin Abdullah suggested that there is a need to develop indigenous knowledge systems of the Global South, including university curricula and teaching methods. He also noted that the ranking of universities is a way of preserving the hegemony of knowledge of the Global North. He concluded the session by suggesting that the Global South is not lacking in terms of talented people, but that ways have to be found to put an end to dependency of Western ideas, theories and methods.

The Second Session featured a keynote address by Pavan Varma, Ambassador of India to Bhutan, who emphasized a point made by Idris Mohamed, that the deepest colonization is that of the mind. Drawing upon the Indian experience, he continued that the 'culture of the ruled' was systematically devalued and that European colonialists were completely dismissive of all that was part of Indian culture, and that there was a systematic denigration of all that was other than their own. This had two results: an alienation of oneself and a sense of awe toward the colonialists. Noting that the first thing the colonisers took from the ruled was language, he added that, 'Language is a window to your culture... you close that window and a culture ceases.' He suggested that global languages have their place, but not at the expense of local languages, cautioning that, 'We cannot become a nation of linguistic half castes.' Varma concluded his address by observing that while the Global South can be proud of its doctors and engineers, the humanities are stunted and in a shambles.

The keynote address was followed by commentary from several conference participants. Hossein Doostdar of the Center for International Scientific Studies and Collaboration in Iran pointed out that the spirits of Macaulay and Churchill may be alive but they themselves are dead, emphasising that the Global South has to also be aware of the living forces in its midst that are perpetuating the thinking of the former colonisers. Ashis Nandy of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi made the point that Euro-centrism was a limited way to understand what was happening, and that the former colonised world is more universal and multicultural than the West and the colonisers. He further noted that notions of 'progress' and 'revolution' have not served the Global South very well in the past 200 years. The first phase of colonialism was about money and Christianity, he recalled, and the second phase proceeded from the African slave trade. But the first half of the the 19th century brought a new phase when enlightenment and moral values changed this old colonial model. The early colonisers wore local dress, married local women, and feared local gods. But this changed in the 1830s, Nandy continued, with the entry of the British middle classes into India, for whom Social Darwinism became the dominant value system. This enabled the rulers to strike a posture of 'stern schoolmaster' and 'despotic father' in their campaign to shape the local people into citizens of the modern nation state. Mani Shankar Aiyar, member of the Upper House of Indian Parliament, observed that there has always been a thesis and anti-thesis in the colonial era's interaction between Britain and India. He turned the old adage that 'Nalanda was the Harvard of India' on its head by suggesting that Harvard ought to be seen as the Nalanda of the US. He insisted that the Global South can stand on its own feet, 'With the winds of the world blowing around us, but we cannot be blown over,' and that there has always been a productive interaction. The Macaulay 'Minute on Indian Education,' he concluded, was the 'suicide note of the British in India,' since once the English ideas were accepted they were turned against the West. Other respondents to Varma's address included: Joan Valenzuela of the Philippines, who noted that dismantling colonialism needs to consider the Global South's own complicity in Western systems; Ahmad Merican of Malaysia, who reminded participants to reclaim the discourse of the Global South's own history; and Lee Seunghwan, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding, who suggested that education should be for cooperation rather than competition and that the Global South needs less education and more cooperation. Varma replied to the commentators by noting that colonialism was not a level playing field, that the people of the Global South must be clear about the destruction wrought by colonialism and they ought to avoid excessive benevolence toward the colonizers.

On Monday afternoon, Session Three and Four focused on the state of the social sciences in the Global South. Session Three was dedicated to discussion of the World Social Science Report (WSSR) published in 2010 by UNESCO. The session began with Daryl Macer of UNESCO Thailand summarizing the report, admitting that the idea of social science in the report is closest to that of the West and that UNESCO believes that social sciences need to support a global agenda of development goals. He added, however, that knowledge cannot be suppressed, especially that which challenges the dominant viewpoints. One of the concrete outcomes of the conference was a memorandum to reform the WSSR, which Macer agreed to deliver to UNESCO on behalf of the participants. Shyam Singh of the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bangalore responded that the WSSR is about knowledge from the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, its relevance to those who didn't have that experience was dubious. Vishram Gupte, a Goa-based writer, noted that the WSSR had 'impeccable research methods' and is a 'meticulous collection of data,' and that its point about the 'knowledge divide' is a useful admission that holds out a possibility of hope. However, he stressed that the 'knowing heart' and the 'language of intuition' is missing from the WSSR. The guru model as developed in India, he continued, is based on heart-to-heart talking to develop knowledge, but that in most universities today the liberal exchange is ruled out and replaced with authority-based lectures as the normative mode of instruction. In his response to the presentations, Hazim Shah of the University of Malaya added that the Global South needs to avoid superficial universalism inherent in global reports, that the WSSR has little recognition of other ways of knowing and that there's no attempt to produce independent thinking outside the market orientation. Srinivasan Ramani, an editor at the Economic and Political Weekly, suggested that journals need not cater to the impulse toward indexing and impact factoring. He offered the example of the Dalits in India who use poetry to reflect their social experiences, and asked if there was room for alternative ideas about apprehending reality and experience. Rajaram Tolpadi of Bangalore University noted that social science often provides a 'gloomy picture of what is happening in the non-West,' and asked participants to evaluate what was included as social science, and that in the end it might be better to forget the WSSR.

Building upon the critique of the WSSR in Session Three, the fourth session of the day was dedicated to alternative curricula and methods. Farid Alatas, professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore, began by noting that there is a general neglect of ideas that originated from the non-West. He gave the example of Ibn Khaldun, who is often seen only as a source of knowledge but not as a source of social theory. He outlined two interrelated tasks. First, a step toward decolonizing Eurocentrism would be to ask what of Marx, Durkheim, and other Western thinkers can be salvaged. He suggested that the goal should be to critique but not abandon, and that there can be a focus on aspects of Western thinkers that are neglected in Europe and America, such as the views of Marx and Weber on Islam and Asia. Second, the Global South needs to introduce non-Western thinkers of the same period, such as Jose Rizal of the Philippines, whose works are virtually ignored in the region but who was doing a critique of Eurocentrism before it was recognized as such. He blamed the structure of 'academic dependency' and the 'captive mind' for not moving from critiques to concrete reforms. Most importantly, he urged participants to recognise that besides imperialism there are problems in the Global South that need to be addressed, such a lack of standards or government interference in curricula. He concluded by asking what social scientists are doing to fight the abuses and corruption in their own countries and whether the social sciences can confront the problems of Asia today.

The next speaker in Session Four was Vinay Lal of the University of Delhi, who reminded participants that, despite what Eric Wolf wrote in Europe and the People without History, all peoples today insist they have a history and so what is therefore necessary is an epistemological critique of history. Offering the example of James Mill's History of British India (1818) to illustrate that periodisation was already well established by that time but that Mill used Hindi, Muslim and Modern for his periods, Lal pointed out the 'sleight of hand' between the second and third periods, which relied on the negative connotations of the Medieval period in the West to suggest that Britain had somehow transcended religion. He then asked about the categories used to write history, noting that this same movement from Medieval to Modern is implicit in the discourse of development, which hijacks the past as well as the future. Chaipraditkul Napat, a researcher at the Eubios Ethics Institute in Thailand, spoke next about the philosophy of education and the need to develop wisdom. She noted that in terms of scholarship 'they keep writing and we keep citing,' and asked if the Global South can learn to write its own histories. Reporting on the potential of developing African psychotherapies in African universities, Augustine Nwoye from the University of Dodoma in Tanzania outlined the benefits of drawing from the best practices of African and Western models of affecting psychological healing. In outlining an African derived course in psychology, he emphasised that decolonising is worthy but needs care. Continuing on the theme of psychology, Akomolafe Adebayo Clement of Covenant University in Nigeria asked about relevance of the social sciences in Africa. He suggested the need to develop nosologies and classifications that come out of community narratives in order to move away from the idea that universities need to look like Harvard. Giving the example of Swaraj University, he noted that a student need not be defined as some one sitting in a classroom. Stressing the importance of stories and narratives or myths, he reported on the development of a local storytelling circle to generate narratives, asking that if psychology is a form of storytelling practice, it's important to focus on what stories are being told and by what myths people may be living. Session Four concluded with comments from the floor that raised several points, including that religion and spirituality play an important role in the Global South and that more local grounding is needed before doing criticism of Eurocentrism.

The conference was attended by several local journalists, and along with reports and reflections from conference participants a number of articles have appeared in the Malay press. Zainon Ahmed wrote in the Sun Daily that 'decolonisation of universities begins with us.' Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia and conference co-host Dzulkifli Abdul Razak discussed 'decolonizing our minds' in the New Straits Times and conference participant Shad Saleem Faruqi reflected on 'decolonising our universities' in the The Star Online. Additional media coverage is reported at the USM homepage and on the Multiworld website, and C. K. Raju is archiving media reports on his blog. Further information about the conference and participants is available on the conference page at Multiworld, including a selection of conference papers, and videos featuring excerpts as well as full sessions are available for viewing and downloading at the TV Multiversity channels on YouTube and Vimeo.

[This report was written by Multiversity co-creator Yusef J. Progler, who was a participant in the Penang conference and who presently works as professor of Society, Culture, and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. Part two of the report, featuring notes on Day Two and Three of the conference, is available here.]


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