Wednesday June 29, 2011
Decolonising our universities
By PROF SHAD SALEEM FARUQI
Western chemistry had its predecessor in Eastern alchemy, Algebra had African roots, and Arabic was at one time the lingua franca of science and technology.
AN ongoing international conference in Penang is examining the issue of intellectual enslavement in Asian and African citadels of learning. Luminary after luminary are pointing out that education in Asia and Africa is too West-centric. It blindly apes Western universities and Western curricula.
Our university courses reflect the false belief that Western knowledge is the sum total of all human knowledge.
The books prescribed and the icons and godfathers of knowledge are overwhelmingly from the North Atlantic countries.
Titles written by scholars and thinkers from Asia and Africa are rarely included in the book list. Our curricula exhibit lack of awareness of the Asian and African contributions to civilisation.
Any evaluation of right and wrong, of justice and fairness, of poverty and development and of what is wholesome and worthy of celebration tends to be based on Western perceptions.
Eastern ideas and institutions are viewed through Western prisms and invariably regarded as primitive and in need of change.
The imperatives of globalisation have further tilted the balance in favour of the Anglo-American world view.
Encapsulation: It was my privilege to point out that all human beings are encapsulated by time and space. We are all susceptible to narrow religious, racial and communal perspectives.
Our whole life is a process of expan-ding the horizons of thought and adding to the islands of knowledge.
I admit that Asian and African perspectives on life and law are not universal or comprehensive.
On the same score, North American and European world-views are also limited by their own social experience.
However, due to their colonial ascendency (which has not abated and has simply taken on new forms) and due to their military and economic might, their perspectives pass off as universal, transcendental and absolute.
Politically free, mentally enslaved: For instance, legal education in this country is primarily British based.
It is profession-oriented not people-oriented. Despite the Asian context, it does not emphasise need-based programmes.
It does not highlight the burning issues of the times – the plight of the marginalised and the downtrodden and issues of corruption and abuse of power.
Students are not trained or encouraged to walk in the valleys where the rays of justice do not penetrate.
The syllabi are fashioned on British LLB and Bar at Law courses. Education is textbook based rather than experience based. The structure of the course, the topics covered, the books prescribed, the icons of knowledge are mostly from outside Asia.
The expatriate lecturers and external examiners are mostly from the North Atlantic countries. Asian books, Asian theories and Asian scholars are generally not regarded as fit for such recognition.
This is despite historical evidence that Chinese, Indian and Persian universities predated universities in Europe and provided paradigms for early Western education. Cultural and scientific renaissance flourished in the East long before the European renaissance.
Everyone knows about the Gutenberg printing press. Very few know that Pi Sheng developed one in 1040. In science, Galileo, Newton and Einstein illuminated the firmament but not much is known about Al-hazen and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi.
Western chemistry had its predecessor in Eastern alchemy. Algebra had African roots.
The philosophical musings of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Satre and Goethe can be matched by Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Mulla Sadra, Yanagita Kunio, Shenhui, al-Mutanabbi and Kalidasa.
Durkheim’s and Weber’s sociology must compete with Ibn Khaldun and Jalal Al-Din Rumi. Freudian psychology had its corrective in Buddhist wisdom. The Cartesian medical model has its Eastern counterpart in ayurvedic, unani and herbal methods.
Very few are aware that Arab Muslims were central to the making of medieval Europe. From the 8th to the 13th centuries, Arab and Islamic cultures were at their zenith and were renowned for their science and learning. Aspiring scholars from all over the world flocked to these citadels of education.
Arabic was at one time the lingua franca of science and technology. A large number of texts written in Arabic were translated into Latin without acknowledgment.
Plan of action: So what should be done? It should not be part of our agenda to try to ask European and American universities to include the treasures of the East in their syllabi. Whether their worldview should be enriched by the insights and reflections of the East – that is their problem.
Our concern is that our own universities should first of all shed the slavish mentality of blindly aping Western paradigms.
Secondly, we must embark on a voyage of discovery of our ancestors’ intellectual wanderings. We must seek to rediscover the intellectual wonders and heritage of China, India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and other Eastern and African civilisations.
Our aim should never be to shut out the West or be insular. Let the wearing of blinds be the speciality of someone else. Our aim should be to be truly global, to give our students a bigger picture of knowledge and to increase their choices.
In the background of pervasive Western intellectual domination, indigenisation would assist a genuine globalisation.
Also, this discovery of our treasures should not be as an exercise in flag-waving nationalism. Its aim is ameliorative.
Diversity and pluralism of knowledge systems is vital for meeting many of the moral, social and economic challenges of the times.
For example, Asia should offer a critique of the ethnocentrism of Western scholarship by pointing out that a middle class Western lifestyle and what that entails in terms of the nuclear family, the consumer society, living in suburbia and extensive private space may neither be workable nor desirable in the modern world.
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell and some brakes on “development” policies and some reconsideration of what amounts to the good life is in order.
Humanity is living on the verge of a precipice, afraid both to climb and to fall. But the ground is slipping beneath us. It is time for a dialogue between civilisations, a mutual process of learning from each other and a building of a garland of wisdom with blossoms from many Eastern and Western gardens.
Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM and Visiting Professor at USM.