28 July 2011

Notes on Decolonising Universities (Part Two)

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 throughout the Global South to address the problem of Eurocentrism in university curricula and governance. Going beyond criticism of colonialism, many participants shared experiences in decolonising higher education, reporting on local initiatives from Asia, Africa and the Mideast. Sessions and excerpts are being aired throughout July and August on TV Multiversity, and a book of the proceedings is forthcoming later this year. In this second of a two part conference report, we bring our readers highlights from Days Two and Three of this landmark event.

Day Two opened with the Fifth Session of the conference, which featured C.K. Raju, visiting professor of mathematics at Universiti Sains Malaysia, who noted that math and science as taught today are ‘full of superstitions.’ He outlined how the Arabic and Islamic knowledge was sanitized in the West and that the purpose of the university was to make that knowledge fit the doctrines of Christian theology. In the Western world, he continued, all knowledge had to be either from the Greeks or it had to conform to Christian theology, and the resulting falsification of history 'wrote minds' of the West. He suggested that these falsifications are maintained through the process of refutability and the 'piling on of hypotheses.' Referring to Einstein as ‘the god of science,’ he explained that Einstein was in fact unreliable but that he is still believed because there is no method to refute his work and few people have the background to decide the truths of science. Suggesting that the laws of physics are not based on science but based on belief, he pointed out that what remains is trust in superstitions and it has become the job of universities to keep people from knowing and instead basing their awareness of the truth on trust. Truth, he continued, is a decidedly Western endorsement of the many false gods of science, such as Euclid, Ptolemy and Newton. In order to decolonise universities, Raju insisted that it is necessary to understand how they were colonised, that the key to this is to move beyond denouncing colonialism and realizing that a sort of soft power is at work, and that Eurocentrism is a very deliberate strategy of mind control for which stories are invented to defend the indefensible. He gave the example that while the world is non-reversible Newton's laws are reversible, that, in other words, Newton's world is mechanistic. He went on to note that Newton didn't invent calculus, he misunderstood it, and his misunderstanding led him to conceive of time in metaphysical terms. This was necessary, he suggested, because math had become in the West the language of eternal truths, with eternity being the religious component of math that needs to be exorcised. Getting into the necessary technical background, and referring participants to his books on the topic for the details, he pointed out that because infinite series cannot be summed set theory handles infinity metaphysically, and that therefore this metaphysics is religiously biased. He next asked why metaphysics has been accepted instead of empiricism in science, pointing out that logic is not universal and that, for example, Buddhist logic allows for contradictions. He further explained that infinity is not necessary to send a man to the moon, which needs 9 decimal points, or 16 to be safe, but that formal math demands infinite precision and therefore requires metaphysics. To decolonise math, he concluded, its applications can remain but its understanding will have to change and this will necessarily involve the elimination of the superstitions.

Session Five then turned from science to the topic of law. Shad Faruqi, Emeritus Professor of Law at Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia, spoke on legal education and noted that it is profession oriented and text based, but that it ought to be people related and experience based. He observed that syllabi for courses on legal studies in Malaysia ‘blindly ape’ Western approaches, and pointed out that the legal profession does not require knowledge of the Malaysian constitution. This results in issues of constitutional law being evaded, and to illustrate this he reminded participants that in 53 years of independence there have been very few cases of parliamentary review. He suggested that indigenisation of knowledge will assist in true globalisation, because diversity is necessary for meeting many of the social challenges of the day. He further observed that external reviews, governing bodies and sources of teaching are all Western and concluded by urging scholars of the Global South to compile the 'treasuries of our thought.' Shadrack Gutto, Director of the Institute for African Renaissance Studies, continued on several of these themes by noting that both small and large legal cases in Africa are sent to the European courts. At the same time, he pointed out that although there is an international criminal court, the USA and Israel are not part of that justice. Furthermore, he observed, international laws are often used in a way to depict Africans as criminals, while the real criminals are those who make the laws, and insisting that 'we have laws but no rule of law, we have constitutions but no constitutionalism.' He concluded by suggesting that lawyers in general are only 'half educated' and asked if it is really necessary to maintain the traditional academic disciplinary structure of universities when it comes to legal education, since many legal cases will often require interdisciplinary perspectives drawn from science, sociology and other areas of expertise.

Massoud Shadjareh of the Islamic Human Rights Commission chaired Session Six, which focused on language, literature and the arts. Roghayeh Rostampur Maleki, Head of the Arabic Language and Literature Department of Al-Zahra University in Tehran, opened the session by speaking about 'The West in Arabic Literature.' She asked why the Nobel Prize should be awarded only to those who are approved by the West, and gave the example of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz who denigrated the Prophet of Islam. She concluded that the main aim of the West is to eliminate religion from literature, and that this is related to Arabic today being separated from its Quranic authority. To remedy this, she suggested, scholars and literary figures ought to be accustomed to the language of the Quran. Mahdi Hamidi Parsa opened the following presentation with a quotation from the Islamic sage Imam Sadiq, who said that 'Guide people not by talk.' He suggested that teachers ought to be honest and faithful, because they influence others, and noted that teaching in circles reduces hierarchy among learners. Speaking from his experience as Vice-President of the Islamic School of Art in Qom, he recalled that master learners live in a group and learn together and that teaching art is by doing art in a workshop environment. Building on the spirit of the quote from Imam Sadiq, he suggested that acting is more important than talking, that explanation is not necessary, and that teaching is by doing. He also reminded participants of the role of the sacred in education, giving the example of Muslim architects who fast and pray for a month before they begin work on building a mosque, because it will be a place in which people will seek to be close to God and so the architect ought to be close to God, too. To decolonise universities, he concluded, it is crucial to return to local tradition and part of that involves students and teachers living, learning, and traveling together so as to know one another. Session Six concluded with Sue-San Ghahremani Ghajar of Al-Zahra University and Seyyed Abdolhamid Mirhosseini of Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran offering ways to decolonize language education research in Iranian universities. Ghajar noted that that researchers have to be conscious of how they talk about their work and how they feel about what they are doing, and Mirhosseini added that research pervades the work of academia and that this is related to questions of relevance and publication. He observed that the sources of legitimation in research are not people but rather institutions or ideas, such as 'the West,' concluding that there is a form of 'captive research,' being that which is largely irrelevant to the needs and concerns of a locality.

The afternoon of Day Two began with Session Seven, which was chaired by Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University in the US. Erwin Soriano Fernandez, Director of the House of Pangasinan Studies in the Philippines, opened the session by speaking about neo-colonialism in the university, providing a review of how much decolonisation has actually taken place in universities, the people associated with it and at what level it is occurring, taking note of the obstacles, often self-imposed, that prevent furthering the work of decolonisation. He was followed by Zhou Li, Professor of Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University in China, who enumerated the of traps of academic studies as the uncritical and ideological use of theory, and the pervasive culture of Eurocentrism. He noted that the division of thought into traditional and modern was a one way movement with no return, giving the example of modernization theory. He also cautioned against the responses to this predicament that often resort to a kind of provincial and self-centered localism, warning that 'if we jump from one trap, we may fall into another.' He observed that in modern China, beating down Confucianism was followed by dependency on German Marxist thought. For most of modern history, the social sciences have been occupied by Western sources and the adoption of various social and natural science indices are a form of self-colonisation. Courses in development, he gave as an example, are based on comparing theories of the Western world. He jokingly noted that, 'you have to lay many eggs' to get promoted in Chinese academia by publishing in the right indexed journals. He concluded by suggesting that decolonisation needs to come about through ‘our utterances as well as in our college lectures.’ Cheng-Feng Shih, Professor of Political Science from Taiwan, continued this line of thought by noting that after colonising bodies was achieved, colonizing minds was necessary 'so that we can learn to be happy slaves.' He noted the irony of the situation of Taiwanese professors, who are asked by their institutions to publish in US journals to 'gain recognition' but that US editors say that their works 'lack audience' and send them back. Evaluations of faculty, he continued, are based on quantitative notions of 'productivity' as the basis for promotions and bonuses, and that the standards are biased toward the natural sciences. The result is that young scholars frequently lose interest in the social and political problems of their country and indigenous peoples are deprived of identity in Taiwan. Session Seven concluded with Ibrahim Pur of Gazi University in Ankara, speaking about the impact of Westernization on the Turkish educational system, illustrating this by listing the Eurocentric curriculum content of a typical degree program in Turkish universities. He also reported on the case of Imam Hatip schools that teach the usual academic subjects along side of religious subjects as a sort of compromise, noting that Muslim parents in Turkey want moral education as well as academic subjects and that Imam Hatip schools produce graduates recognized for both their morality and ethics as well as their academic achievements.

Session Eight, chaired by Shaikh Abdul Mabud of the Islamic Academy in London, began with Abdolhossein Khosropaneh, a teacher and research at Islamic seminaries in Iran, speaking about a model of the social sciences from a Muslim perspective and providing an overview of relevant theories from the Islamic tradition. Mohideen Abdul Kader, Chairperson on Citizens International, spoke next about universities failing to rise to the task of addressing the systems that are destroying the world, noting that the knowledge they are teaching is part of the destructive mentality, and that it is materialist and lacks any sense of the sacred. He observed that philosophy departments are often closed down because they have no utilitarian purpose, that scientists have become ensconced in the market, and that most universities produce graduates with 'tunnel vision.' He concluded that universities need to introduce moral and ethical values into the curriculum but that there are obstacles to this prospectus. Giving the example of Universiti Sains Malaysia, he noted that compulsory economics courses are based on the capitalist model while Islamic oriented courses are optional. The result of this, he observed, is that graduates come out with only the increasingly irrelevant and already destructive mindset of the capitalist economic model but that there is a complete absence of ethics and justice in economics, pointing out the implications that 'our minds have become captive to those who are trained in this way.' Mohammad Reza Aghaya, Vice President of the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom, Iran, turned to the question of integrating the knowledge domains in the Islamic seminary, suggesting that in Islamic seminaries today there is a 'focus on God words but on God books,' and that there needs to be a return to a system in which knowledge can be modelled on that of the prophets and imams. Arif Ersoy, Secretary General of the Economic and Social Research Center in Ankara, concluded the session by recalling that while Turkey was indirectly colonized in the past, today's colonisation is worse than before because it is mental and cultural colonisation. Drawing upon  the wisdom of the Islamic mystical tradition, he observed that in the mineral and plant worlds there is harmony of function according to their instinct and nature, but that human beings have four faculties that need to be aligned in order to bring about harmony and sociability. The session, and the day, concluded with a lively discussion of the previous themes featuring comments from the floor.

The third and final day of the conference featured two sessions in the morning and then an afternoon of reflection and planning. Session Nine, chaired by Mani Shankar Aiyar, began with Molefi Kete Asante, professor of Africology at Temple University, reminding participants that the USA was born with two ‘birth defects,’ genocide and slavery. After pointing out that Africa was the original home of the human species, he suggested that the experience of Europeans has colored the views of Asians toward Africans. He went on to point out that the curriculum of African universities is much like those of the West, that the regional universities are 'imitation European universities.' Part of the way to rectify this problem is to acknowledge chronology, which he insisted was crucial. For instance, he showed that it is important to realize that Nubia and Kemet (the original African name for Egypt) are the China, India and Greece of Africa and that the pyramids were already up 5000 years ago, long before Greece and Rome. Given that, he asked why African universities begin their studies of history with ancient Greece. Similarly, he continued, Africans had highly developed philosophies long before Greece, pointing to the Egyptian polymath Imhotep. If it is necessary to refer to the Greeks, then he suggested checking Herodotus to find out how much the Greeks learned from Africa. The modern university, he observed, was promoting a Eurocentric version of world history, and that ‘there was a Greek on every corner.' Yet the truth is, he insisted, that the Greeks sat at the feet of Africa, and it is therefore necessary to re-integrate the ancient history of Africa. Unfortunately, he continued, there is no African foundation to today's African universities. Drawing upon forty years of teaching in universities, he observed that if you see 'origin unknown' in any references or sources then it means that it must have come from Africa. In other words, it may have been unknown to Europe, but that doesn’t preclude peoples of the Global South from having a look. He also noted that the way we talk about the world is part of self-colonisation, in that while Europeans have ‘philosophy,’ other peoples have myths, tales, stories and religions. He concluded by reminding the conference participants that Africology is the Afrocentric study of Africa and that it proceeds from the agency of the African people, not the Europeans imposing their agency. Building upon these themes, Samuel Tindifa from Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan University in Uganda delivered a paper prepared by Babuuzibwa Mukasa Luutu, Vice Chancellor of Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan University, on the topic of bringing community back into the university. Based upon the teachings of Marcus Garvey, he suggested that peoples’ traditions are fundamental pillars of learning, concluding that Africology is the study of the scientific development of humanity, that it is a liberation theology drawing its legitimacy from Africa as the cradle of humanity. Session Nine was followed by an extensive and lively discussion around the question of what it means to be Afrocentric and what might be the relationships between Afrocentrism and a similarly configured Sinocentrism or Indocentrism or others, and in turn if these were all dependent on Eurocentrism.

Session Ten, chaired by Omar Farouk Bajunid of Hiroshima City University, began with Yusef Progler, Professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, speaking on the challenges faced by higher education undergoing an imposed transition in many locales from the national university to the corporate university, pointing out that the structure and outlook of business has undermined higher education’s traditional encounter with culture. In the event that elite minded researchers collude with money minded managers to close the doors of universities to all but the privileged, he suggested using the Internet to construct online learning communities and repositories of knowledge to fulfill Ivan Illich’s prospectus for deschooling societies. James Campbell, Lecturer in the School of Education at Deakin University in Australia, spoke next on the problem of mimicry in today’s university, pointing out the role of international university ranking systems in perpetuating a colonialist hierarchy of knowledge and value. Claude Alvares, coordinator of the Multiversity Project, followed up on these presentations and summarised many of the previous ones by providing an overview of Eurocentrism in universities, with an emphasis on the social sciences. He noted that beyond the curriculum, the structure of university learning is also colonised and destructive, suggesting that compulsory attendance needs to be eliminated, textbooks have to be abandoned, and lecturing ought to be banned, replacing these with an environment in which self-learning is encouraged and made to flourish. Building upon these later points and also noting ways and means of learning outside the academy, Manish Jain of India-based Shikshantar: The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development concluded the session with a presentation on the recently founded Swaraj University in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Inspired by Gandhian notions of self-sufficiency, he noted that the hidden curriculum of modern universities has a far greater impact on minds and learning than the written curriculum. He suggested that the alternative is to see the world as a classroom, and outlined a paradigm for moving away from schooling and toward self-organizing learning communities, pointing to the example of Swaraj University, which operates as a two year learning program that provides opportunities for young learners to develop the ‘skills and perspectives they need to create viable green-collar enterprises and to support healthy and resilient local communities.’ The session then turned to a series of several exchanges between the conference participants and the presenters.

The Concluding Session of the conference, on the afternoon of Day Three, featured Anwar Fazal, a Penang-based activist and organizer and founder of the Right Livelihood College, leading a plenary discussion to chart a roadmap for decolonising during 2011-2012. In an aspect that is often excluded from typical academic conferences, the session began with a series of presentations from the student rapporteurs responding to the conference themes. The session concluded with Anwar Fazal asking each of the conference participants to commit themselves to a specific activity to bring the conference themes to fruition in the coming year. The conference was brought to a close by S.M. Mohammed Idris, Chairperson of Citizens International, and Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, Vice Chancellor of University Sains Malaysia, who thanked the participants and urged them to keep alive the diverse proposals and prospects presented.

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.' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak wrote about decolonizing our minds in the New Straits Times and conference participant Shad Saleem Faruqi wrote on 'decolonising our universities' in the The Star Online. Additional media coverage is reported at the USM homepage on the Multiworld website, and C. K. Raju is archiving media reports on his blog. Further information about the conference is available on the conference page at Multiworld 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. It is the second of a two part report. Part one is available here.]


  1. Complete videos for Sessions Nine and Ten are now available for viewing and downloading at the TV Multiversity Channel on Vimeo:

    Ninth Session

    Tenth Session

    If you like these videos please copy and share them. Knowledge needs people and it needs to be free.

  2. The closing session of the conference, featuring responses from student rapporteurs and action statements from conference participants, is now available on the TV Multiversity channel at Vimeo.