Academic Decolonisation: the Slippery Slope of Dismantling Knowledge

The discourse surrounding academic decolonisation furnishes today’s intellectual and moralistic justifications for racism

There are different strands of thinking that fall under the umbrella term ‘Decolonising Education’. Some student activists in South Africa want to scrap the existing curriculum outright. Among academics, particularly in the UK, a more moderate claim made is that strategies for decolonisation can move education and political life in a progressive direction. Adherents of this approach stop short of calling for the removal of statues and the rejection of central tenets and Enlightenment texts. They claim that a greater range of subjectivities and perspectives should be made available to students. This could involve extending the texts and authors studied, or learning from ways of producing and verifying knowledge as practised in places and institutions that have, historically, had their work marginalised and/or delegitimised.

This was the position advanced by one Cambridge academic at the recent international conference of the Royal Geographical Association. Is there something to be said for this position? Or does it amount to dismantling knowledge and lacking the courage to admit it?

Academic adaptability

No school or university curriculum is, nor should be, set in stone. If it were, our schools would still be teaching that which has subsequently been disproved – or improved. We no longer teach that humans can be divided, and valued, according to skin colour or cranium-size. Physicists don’t teach that the earth is the centre of the universe, and in the social sciences and humanities we don’t preach that all human affairs are mono-causal – determined by the arrangement of the planets or a divine power.  We’ve moved on from the former thanks to the development of verification procedures in the natural sciences, while the nuanced understandings now offered by the social sciences and humanities depend on the continually evolving combination of empirical knowledge with interpretation and hermeneutics.

These intellectual and cultural advances have been made possible due to procedural and technical improvements in knowledge production. Equally importantly, they depend on the sometimes unintended insights of scholars committed to pursuing truth within their disciplinary fields, wherever the journey might take them. Furthermore, outside academia, there is also the contribution made by like-minded individuals determined to pursue moral and political ideals of equality and freedom.

The statue of Cecil John Rhodes is bound by straps as it awaits removal from the University of Cape Town (UCT), April 9, 2015. UCT’s Council voted to remove of the statue of the former Cape Colony governor, after protests by students who argued that Cecil John Rhodes is ‘racist’. (Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings)

 

Hence, those who advocate for decolonisation are right in as much as producing knowledge, and selecting knowledge for national education systems, is a thoroughly social and historical affair; and they are also right to point to the ethical dimensions of knowledge and education issues. But they are wrong to think that these relations of power are all there is to disciplinary, or academic, knowledge. As a consequence, they are wrong in their understanding of the relationship between knowledge and democratic goals, and disastrously wrong in their claims that strategies for decolonisation can help combat racism in its contemporary form. In fact, in many ways, the discourse surrounding decolonisation furnishes today’s intellectual and moralistic justifications for racism, albeit unintentionally.

“The discourse surrounding decolonisation furnishes today’s intellectual and moralistic justifications for racism”

Bad Knowledge

They may deny it, but proponents of decolonisation are shareholders in the epistemological relativism of post-modernism – and they reap its corrosive rewards. At first sight, the rhetorical focus on critical concepts of globalisation, oppression and justice might seem far removed from the literary and linguistic concerns of post-modernism, but both share an aversion to reason as the means of judging one idea, argument or knowledge claim as better than another. And once reason and rationality are ruled out of court, either because they lead to totalising grand narratives or because they have illegitimate priority and oppressive effects, both the claims of the postmodernists and those of the proponents of decolonisation to epistemic authority can only be asserted. Their epistemic claims may be sneaked back in under the guise of ironic detachment or moral attachment to particular political positions; but in both cases, truth as the ultimate arbiter in intellectual work is equally marginalised.

Epistemological relativism rests on the presupposition that the meanings of any knowledge claims are context specific, i.e. they make sense only within a given linguistic community and its historically specific social context; hence the claim that if an account of the natural world makes sense to those living in a post-colonial community, it follows that Western academics are in no position to say that this knowledge is less rational, and therefore inferior to, knowledge produced in their colonial institutions. With no epistemic criteria for judging one form of knowledge over another, any differences in the value and status attributed to knowledge and knowledge procedures from different cultures can only be the effect of prior relations of political and economic inequality. In this outlook, power trumps knowledge every time.

“With no epistemic criteria for judging one form of knowledge over another, any differences in the value and status attributed to knowledge and knowledge procedures from different cultures can only be the effect of prior relations of political and economic inequality”

According to this position, the only way of improving knowledge, and the imputed socio-political inequalities that such knowledge is alleged to legitimise, is to keep adding different perspectives according to their degree of previous marginalisation. In this mechanistic, Lockean manner, knowledge tainted with the blood of past atrocities just might be purified. And atonement is never far away from the discourse of decolonisation, which even suggests that some supporters of the decolonisation of education are more concerned with their own salvation (preferably without the onerous requirements of established religions) – a far cry from fighting oppression, as they would have themselves believe.

Meanwhile, epistemological criteria for making comparative judgments of knowledge claims and ethical commitment to upholding knowledge as a key element in a liberal, democratic society are said to be no more than fig-leaves for strategies of exclusion.  Thus, a whole range of important questions is left woefully unanswered: What, other than political or socio-economic status of individuals, makes some knowledge better than others? Are the standards of science and rationality, developed in the West, the only valid ways of evaluating knowledge produced in societies with different levels of socio-cultural development?

The last question is at the root of the disagreement between E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Peter Winch over the status of magic and witchcraft practiced by an Azande tribe in Sudan.

Evans-Pritchard’s account, published in 1937, acknowledged that the mystical notions of the Azande possessed coherence and were supported by their everyday experiences; this represented an advance on previous orthodoxies which deemed primitive tribes to be completely irrational. But he also stated that Azande magic did not achieve the status of scientific knowledge. In 1970, Winch argued that the Azande’s use of mystical ideas was not intended to compete with Western scientific, theoretical knowledge, and therefore, Pritchard was wrong to judge it according to Western standards of knowledge. Indigenous Azande knowledge was better understood as an expressive, rather than technical, form of knowledge in the mode of Western science. Within Azande cosmology, mystical notions made sense and therefore, were rational.[1]

The type of answers we provide to such a question can be indicative of the cultural state of a society and thus have implications beyond academia and education alone.

Better Knowledge

The idea that Western disciplinary, or academic, knowledge is the best available to us rests on the presupposition that there is a fundamental differentiation to be made between abstract and experiential knowledge, and that all cultures have specific systems of semiosis, or making meanings, with different levels of differentiation. Meanings of non-disciplinary forms of knowledge lie more in the inter-subjective relationships and intentions of everyday, personal experience. Disciplinary knowledge is embodied in particular social actors, who have their own individual interests and personal fallibilities, but conceptual meanings are abstracted from everyday experience and relocated in discursive disciplinary contexts and inferential networks of intra and inter-disciplinary concepts. In the process, concepts attain an independence from personal proclivities and can be systematically codified and made objective in the sense of becoming intellectual ‘objects’. This is the intellectual work of disciplinary communities by which knowledge is furnished with the conceptual means to generalise. Its powers of universal application are due to a combination of its emergent intrinsic epistemological properties, which are methodically systematised. What matters more than the colour, sex or gender of scholars is the epistemological and ethical commitment of the academic community to maintain and defend its established public function as gatekeepers of disciplinary knowledge and its predicate – the intentional pursuit of truth.

“What matters more than the colour, sex or gender of scholars is the epistemological and ethical commitment of the academic community to maintain and defend its established public function as gatekeepers of disciplinary knowledge and its predicate the intentional pursuit of truth”

The problem is that this is not happening, or at least not on the scale needed. Instead, moral uncertainty has proved fertile ground for the growing acceptance in academia of the unsubstantiated assertion that making knowledge judgments is an act of cultural and political arrogance, if not outright oppression. Instead of being defensive about the superiority of objective universal knowledge, academics would do better to work at explaining how and why such knowledge is legitimately discriminating.  Furthermore, how its hard-won systematic concepts, rules and procedures allow others in different places and times not only to arrive at similar understandings, but also to bring fresh insights from their contextual contingencies which, through appropriate intellectual work and critique, are synthesised to produce better knowledge – knowledge that is more nuanced and more equipped to account for the realities that we collectively experience.

Yes, historically such knowledge has been developed to its highest levels in West European academia by white-skinned scholars, and this could be a fruitful area for intellectual inquiry, but it is not a legitimate cause for today’s scholars to go on the defensive, or parade their feelings of guilt for past political atrocities. Azande symbolic systems could be described as rational symbolic systems within their specific cosmology, but if the normative meaning of stubbing one’s toe on a stone is that it is a sign of an angry god, and that interpretation influences subsequent acts (sacrificial offerings, for example), we can justifiably conclude that this a culture where mythical totemic knowledge prevails – to the long-term detriment of those who are caught up in it. For these people, a stage of overall societal development and attendant relationships, which facilitate a greater autonomy of symbolic concepts and subsequent knowledge development, has not yet been reached. That such indigenous forms of knowledge are more imaginatively expressive, can make them seem attractive to some in Western cultures where, for over half a century, knowledge in the natural sciences has come to be regarded as the only form of objective knowledge. But this suggests only that further intellectual work is urgently required to better understand, and justify, knowledge in the arts and humanities. It does not mean that knowledge itself is culturally relative.

“Yes, historically such knowledge has been developed to its highest levels in West European academia by white-skinned scholars, and this could be a fruitful area for intellectual inquiry, but it is not a legitimate cause for today’s scholars to go on the defensive, or parade their feelings of guilt for past political atrocities”

The necessary conceptual gap between disciplinary knowledge and every day meanings does pose specific educational challenges; but it is also the catalyst for imaginative leaps without which knowledge cannot progress. It helps to furnish a virtual space where we meet, however contingently and temporarily, in reciprocal recognition of each other as equal bearers of the faculty of reason (irrespective of how this faculty is exercised at an individual level). As such it is constitutive of a liberal culture and society where competing interests are obliged to submit to degrees of negotiation and toleration which, in turn, requires a citizenry capable of exercising a level of reflexivity from which to see beyond personal proclivities.

Bad politics

Although some proponents of decolonisation education claim to be humanising academic knowledge, all they are really doing is stripping it of its important, potentially transformative features. Their model of subjectivity, which they identify as the sole source of epistemic authority, is one that reduces it to the experience of feelings: as if subjectivity does not encompass rationality. No one can be inducted into experiencing particular feelings; feelings are personal and private property. They are necessarily volatile, contradictory and responsive. As such, they cannot furnish grounds for objective knowledge.

Attempts to make education responsible for inducing particular feelings that have been prejudged as being politically desirable (whether guilt or empathy), risks overriding the boundary between public knowledge and private feelings. It thereby introduces the illogical idea that feelings can be taught and that knowledge is synonymous with feelings. This erodes the ground for both the critique of knowledge and the individual autonomy of citizens, without which societies are likely to be democratic in name rather than substance.

“[Feelings] are necessarily volatile, contradictory and responsive. As such, they cannot furnish grounds for objective knowledge”

The relativistic presuppositions of academic decolonisation advocates means they are unable to recognise new realities and problems. For example, wedded to an outdated prism of nineteenth century colonial relations, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, they still subscribe to some version of dependency theories.[1]  New studies suggesting that, in America, the suicide rate is growing among white, rather than black, males – a reversal of earlier trends – are ignored.   Unable to properly recognise the nature of a social problem, the solutions proposed by Decolonisers tend to focus on imposing a faux equality in the symbolic realm rather than engage with the more difficult work needed to solve contemporary problems in ways that contribute to overall social progress.

Those Decolonisers who are wary of the implications of their argument claim they are not cultural or epistemological vandals – all that is required, after all, is more context, more voices.  But disciplinary knowledge already entails the possibility of such extensions. This suggests that what is being demanded is more a change of our attitudes to knowledge. Attitudes to knowledge do change over time, but it is usually because improvements in various fields provide fuller, more nuanced accounts of reality rather than moralising. With moralistic imperatives rather than rational arguments, the Decolonisers are unlikely to win wider assent, but are well-placed to act as useful idiots for politicians and academic bureaucracies who have their own problems of political, professional and moral authority.

“Those Decolonisers who are wary of the implications of their argument claim they are not cultural or epistemological vandals- all that is required, after all, is more context, more voices.  But disciplinary knowledge already entails the possibility of such extensions”

Unwittingly perhaps, the argument for the decolonisation of education ends up reintroducing discredited racist ideas about non-European people. Advocates of decolonisation often attribute to themselves the intellectual ability to develop a stance that is more removed from personal feelings; whereas Others are left in the realm of myth and instinct, closer to children or animals. Thus, despite appeals to notions of modern social justice, the logic of the discourse around decolonisation ends up endorsing anti-rational ideas that are closer to religious myth and practices than secular knowledge and justice.

Logically, you cannot reject something you don’t already have or know, and by rejecting or eviscerating disciplinary knowledge, Decolonisers deny others the possibility of achieving the universal outlook that they themselves once might have held.

 

[1] One example is that some statistics, including those of GDP, from the World Bank indicate a higher growth rate in Rwanda than in Britain: https://data.worldbank.org/country/rwanda. And there is the much discussed and accepted emergence of the Asian tiger nations.  This is not to suggest that these nations have reached equivalent, or greater, levels of achievement in all areas, but just to point out that these are social facts which need to be better explained. For a detailed critique of how ideological imperatives can limit knowledge in the Geography curriculum see Alex Standish (2017) Teaching about development in a post-development society: the case of geography, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education DOI 10.1080/10382046.2017.1367539.

About Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert

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Educator, writer & researcher; co-author, What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth.

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5 comments

  1. Excellent piece Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert! “possessed coherence and were supported by their everyday experiences” = today’s millennials’ mantra of “my lived experience”. We cannot just accept an idea is true because it gels with our “lived experience” …. it is not enough to stop at “lived experience”. The Yorkshire ripper had a “lived experience” of ‘God’ telling him to kill prostitutes. Many Americans have “lived experiences” of UFOs. In both cases we can reasonably question whether what people say about their experiences is probable.

    • Well stated and right on point. It is this western method that transcends “personal experience” and produces replicable usable knowledge. “Inshallah” may be “consistent with personal experience(s)” but science produces electricity and vaccines.

  2. What I take from this article is that ideas which, with the hindsight of better knowledge and understanding, are now discredited, should still be studied within the parameters of knowledge of those past societies in order to understand why they were the predominant ideas of the day; that does not mean accepting them as valid for today but it should not mean that because we disagree with them today,that we should erase them from our memory. We cannot learn from the past in this way. It feels very much like when totalitarian regimes excise persons they no longer feel comfortable with. We need to understand the past within its specific historical context and we should feel able to disagree with it today without feeling the necessity to erase it. Those who feel obliged to erase the past are unable to provide better arguments against the past and this should make us wary because they are the new dictators.

    • It is not westerners who propose to obliterate the remnants or the memory of all that preceded their temporary military ascendancy. That doctrine belongs to other people’s “relatively equal” culture. It is simply wrong and bad reasoning with oppressive and destructive consequences. It is the sort of thing that beneficiaries of our culture must learn to discriminate against, rather than constructing demagogic justifications of the rule of the passions of the moment.

  3. Trained academics criticize constructs of objective rational usable knowledge because skepticism is their job. When those outside the tradition take this up they kill vaccinators and their children die of polio. The world is in need of tutelage but instead chooses to hate us and ransack the fruits of our science. The very weapons they turn on us testify to the superiority of our sciences. Do facile trendy academics acknowledge their guilt in this disavowal of a millennium or two of progress? There is nothing “culturally relative” about killing sacrificing one’s children to polio or denying human rights to others.

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