Can we still talk about decolonizing the university?

By Elif Lootens

Karl Marx, Theodor Adorno, Émile Durkheim, Ruth Benedict, Samuel Huntington, Michel Foucault, Bronisław Malinowski, Peter Blau, George Simmel, Sigmund Freud, Francis Fukuyama, Erving Goffman, Pierre Bourdieu, Ronald Inglehart, Slavoj Zizek, Immanuel Wallerstein, Judith Butler,… 

Photo: Decolonizing the mind/ Flickr

I can keep going on with naming those Western scholars and the list has undoubtedly no limits. When I started my sociology degree at Ghent university in Belgium, I naively thought that this liberal university would go beyond Western scholars in a theoretical sense by including the insights of critical thinkers from the Global South. I thought they would incorporate global perspectives in the sociology discipline in order to grasp a deeper understanding of the social reality. I assumed that the social and political science department was not a white public space. However, I could count on one hand the number of professors of colour. I naively thought to read ‘woke’ papers such as intersectionality, decoloniality or critical race theory, which would help to better understand how global processes shape the world we live in.  

I felt constrained by the Eurocentric theoretical character of it. I had become someone I no longer recognised as myself. I silenced my own ways of intellectual thinking to appease the institution. The quest for a programme beyond the current academic tradition was strong. When I addressed the still ongoing issue; why non-Western scholars have been excluded from the curriculum, one of my professors reminded me, with strange confidence, that sociology as a discipline, was institutionalised in Europe. Drawing on his words I could almost believe that sociology is a Western invention and therefore in the other parts of the globe people do not think about society and how it works. 

Why is there still a greater attention to reading and citing white (often straight, male) scholars in Western universities? This Western-centric approach is not only a problem of the sociology discipline itself, social sciences in Western universities constitute as being the centre of a discipline and lay a universal claim on epistemic credulities (which may be global due to colonialism and Western expansion, but not universal) (Dabashi, 2015; Todd, 2016).  

 “Public intellectual” or “ethno sociologist”?  

Reflecting on Hamid Dabashi’s work, it is clear to me that the question here is not if non-European scholars can think, but rather if European intellectuals can de facto read and learn from non-European thoughts, without assimilating it backward to what they already know. Dabashi is right: “historical conditions are the bedrock of ideas” (Dabashi, 2015, p. 39). There is a colonial continuity. However, the correspondence between colonialism and knowledge production is not new. What became superabundant is the form of knowledge production: the intertwined relationship between power and the knowledge production (Dabashi, 2015).

Exactly because Western universities are not a neutral player, they operate in a hierarchical way: where they believe that their particular way of thinking is a synonym for ‘thinking’ and qualify their particular sociology as ‘sociology’, while other intellectuals who operate outside the Western world are classified as ‘ethno sociologists’, rather than speaking about ‘public intellectuals’. Precisely because it classifies one group as epistemologically superior, as ‘universal’ thinkers, as a ‘public intellectuals’ and the non-Western scholars as inferior, who cannot think and therefore are excluded from the ‘universal’ club. However, they can think, but their thoughts are marginalized. This sheds light on the direct connection between an empirical frame and the self-considered ‘universality’ of thinkers (Dabashi, 2015).  

As Grosfoguel states, Western philosophers and sciences are perpetuating what he called ‘ego-politics of knowledge’ which hides the subject that speaks and disconnects them from their gender/racial/ethnic/class/epistemic location. By decoupling this, it enables Western philosophers and scientists to create “a myth about a Truthful universal knowledge” (Grosfoguel, 2007, p. 213). Precisely by dislocating from where they are speaking, European scholars have the audacity to put themselves at the centre of all truthful knowledge and therefore construct a hierarchy of superior and inferior knowledge. Grosfoguel shows that this ‘ego-politics of knowledge’ and hiding situatedness is an epistemic strategy that places the white Western man on the hegemony of intellectualism and represents his knowledge as universal knowledge (Grosfoguel, 2007). 

Decolonizing and deconstructing   

Consider for example a university, where there is a setting with an active engagement with contemporary indigenous scholars who have not internalised the colonial world outlook, where there is space to give credit to indigenous scholars rather than mainly citing 70 year-old texts from white scholars who studied the indigenous ones, where there is an end to the endless production of Western theories, where indigenous scholars are seen as equal bodies of thinking, where there is no need anymore for white intermediaries to filter the non-European thoughts, full stop. 

Decolonizing is not an endpoint; it is a process. To have such an appropriate decolonial process, where “there are only slaves but no master” is only achievable if those Westernized universities are willing to engage and acknowledge the ongoing claim on the hegemony of intellectualism. We need to ask ourselves; how can we decolonize institutions that still carry within them their colonial origins? If we want to decolonize knowledge (/ignorance), then we should take the insights of critical thinkers from the global south seriously (Todd, 2016).  

But that is one issue of many. It needs to go further than uncovering its own ‘epistemic coloniality’. If those Westernized universities are ready, we need to engage more closely with situating knowledge in a geopolitical context. In other words, it is a manner of deconstructing the myth of truthful universal knowledge towards its own particularism (Grosfoguel, 2007).  Achille Mbembe advocates for provincializing European thoughts and at the same time embracing epistemic diversity. If one wishes to break the ‘unipolar’ knowledge of ideas, we will not have a university anymore but instead a pluversity (Mbembe, 2016). Mbembe makes it clear by saying:  

By pluriversity, many understand a process of knowledge production that is open to epistemic diversity.  It is a process that does not necessarily abandon the notion of universal knowledge for humanity, but which embraces it via a horizontal strategy of openness to dialogue among different epistemic traditions. To decolonize the university is therefore to reform it with the aim of creating a less provincial and more open critical cosmopolitan pluriversalism” (Mbembe, 2015, p.19)  

Let me be clear about one thing: knowledge can be seen as universal if it is epistemically pluversal (Mbembe, 2016). This new understanding of intellectualism means that Western universities cannot keep teaching in the same praxis it had always taught. However, the question is if it is not too late to reform universities? No, we are not late, in fact we can still reform universities. In his essay, ‘The End of History’, Francis Fukuyama  mentioned that after the Cold war the battles between the West and East were over, the liberal democracy had triumphed. However, he was mistaken, we entered a multipolar global world order. Consequently, within the decolonizing process of Western universities we are entering the beginning of an entirely new struggle.  

The movement of decolonizing Westernized universities is slowly making progress. More and more universities worldwide are making a commitment to deliver a decolonial agenda. However the fight is not over, since only twenty percent of the UK universities are ready to address the colonial legacy. Nonetheless, in order to move towards anti-racist universities more needs to be deconstructed than the ‘epistemic coloniality’. In the twenty-first century, we cannot afford to ignore the political economy of epistemology which fuels its supremacy in higher education. Until now, white ignorance has been able to flourish due to racial capitalism.  

Knowledge production especially in British universities, is still sustained via funding from and investments in fossil fuel or arms industries. Universities who receive such donations and funding, which are built on the racial capitalism system, global violence and exploitation, are directly committed to perpetuating its own ignorance and supremacy; in line with this Oxford University is a clear example. Despite the collective student campaigns, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford University remained. Rhodes was an imperialist and founder of the colony Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), he established a scholarship program for students throughout the world to study at Oxford and donated money to Oriel College in order to conceal his own racist image. However, Oriel College ruled against the fall of the statue by threatening to stop the funding, and it has worked. This shows how the University of Oxford protects its racist colonial figure and exposes the profit that universities gain by maintaining  a racialized curriculum. Such corrupt and capital driven industries influence our circulated epistemology. The links between capital flows and knowledge/ignorance production is a real fact. 
I am optimistic we can do it better than we have in the past. I see the hope in many petitions and campaigns by students. However, these efforts cannot be led by students alone. Let this be an invitation to Western universities to transform the institution together to a peaceful inclusive public space.

Sources: 

Dabashi, H. 2015. Can non-Europeans think? London: Zed Books Ltd.. 

Mbembe, Josep-Achille 2016. Decolonizing the university: New directions. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 15(1):29-45. doi:10.1177/1474022215618513 

Mbembe, Joseph-Achille. 2015. “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.” Lecture. May 2, 2015 at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. Retrieved October 05, 2016. (http://wiser.wits.ac.za/system/files/Achille%20Mbembe%20-%20Decolonizing%20Knowledge%20and%20the%20Question%20of%20the%20Archive.pdf). 

Grosfoguel, R. 2007. “The epistemic decolonial turn: Beyond political-economy paradigms”. Cultural studies 21(2-3), 211-223. 

Todd, Z. 2016.. “An indigenous feminist’s take on the ontological turn:‘Ontology’is just another word for colonialism.” Journal of historical sociology 29(1), 4-22. 

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