Academic Imperialism : Reflecting on the International Conference on Academic Imperialism (Tehran, May 2010)
It was good to hear excerpts from the International Conference on Academic Imperialism
which took place in May of this year(2010) at the Al-Zahra Women's University
in Tehran, Iran. Despite the apparent absence (based on the videos available) of scholars from the African Continent or of African descent at all, it is good to see such active steps to challenge the continued dominance in academia of Western perspectives, interests, institutions , validation systems and the like. It does not surprise me that this event was not caught on the radar of what is called "International" news of the Western Media and similarly by our mimic-news agencies in the Caribbean.This further validates the fact that such sources fail to attend to many relevant issues for persons in our part of the world and creating a balanced perspective on the world issues and on our construction of our conception of the world itself.
This attempt to decolonize knowledge, the seats of academic knowledge and the structural neo-colonial relationship it represents is nothing new and perhaps has been around for as long as Europe and her children have been on its arrogant mission of spreading its knowledge traditions complete with cultural, religious and other baggage to other parts of the world where they have sought at the same time to dominate and exploit for its material benefit. As we continue to depend on Western sources to provide us with updates on developments concerned with dismantling their dominance, we continue to remain largely ignorant of many developments of note which concern us.
Since many Non-European scholars look predominantly at and to the West and less to themselves and each other for means of creating and understanding the world these societies have largely remained in a subordinate position to Europe both in terms of knowledge and in other related areas of society and have also failed to develop from their own roots and relevant to their own realities. Dr. C. K Raju
) of India makes the point very well in his essay "Ending Academic Imperialism
" that it is perhaps specifically because we pursue this vain game of "catching up with the west" by mimicking the West that we are indeed not realizing this aim. He is speaking in the spirit of the words and actions of many previous scholars from Africa, (Eastern and Western) Asia and other parts of the European-colonized world. One must further question, as have scholars like Dr. Amos Wilson
as to whether it is even a worthy goal to pursue the path and definitions of "development" modeled after ones who have unleashed so much destruction on other peoples as well as on the wider earth. Claude Alvarez
) , another presenter at the conference made the point that while we resist other forms of dominance by Europe we acquiesce to intellectual dominance, building the entire edifice of our education on the notion that we are useless. As such our traditions and histories are seen as having nothing of value to contribute to present day society. The homogenizing impact of Western domination of institutions of higher learning through the power structure existing in the production, validation and distribution of knowledge resources has led to an erosion of the very diversity of perspective touted as one of the hallmarks of globalization. .
A number of factors contribute to the continued dominance by Western intellectual traditions and institutions over the production of knowledge in countries formerly colonized by Europe. These include:
1. Western Educated Scholars
: The fact of Western Education fortunately does not permanently limit a scholar's ability to produce work relevant to her/his society but so many of our scholars for economic and other reasons lack the courage to chart new paths in knowledge based on an examination of other traditions as having at least equally value and use to that coming from Europeans. Exploration of our reality often tends to be confined within boundaries set but trends of European scholarship and systems of conceptualization. Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop
, Dr. Walter Rodney
, Dr. Marimba Ani
, Dr. Naim Akbar
and many other scholars who are often little known or respected because they lack mainstream Western validation are examples of scholars who have demonstrated such courage in their scholarly works.
2. Validation System
- There is a vicious cycle which limits the strides of many Non-European scholars to produce work which is relevant to their society and to freely examine the knowledge resources of their own societies and heritages as viable sources and points of reference for examining todays problems or forging new and creative concepts in attending to the present and future. This cycle revolves around the validation system dominated by Western institutions. This was one of the issues addressed by a number of scholars at the Conference including Dr.C K Raju
) . Because many scholars are rated based on their publishing record in "prestigious" (Western) journals the nature and content of their research is geared towards or falls within the requirements of these journals. Also scholars tend to reserve their best research for these Western Journals thereby depriving their own journals of carrying such research and increasing their(the journals) own prestige and ability to provide validation for their indigenous scholars as well as other scholars. Hence your vicious cycle. One of the presenters demonstrated how certain types of research when restructured to meet the requirements of certain journals reduced in relevance to the society in which it was initially produced(Seyyed Mohammad Marandi(Iran)
- Academic Imperialism - Seyyed Mohammad Marandi] [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMUF8leJ_mM&feature=related#normal]Academic Imperialism - Seyyed Mohammad Marandi
[/url]). Seyyed further explained how certain false conclusions and interpretations can gain such force even over scholars of the society being spoken of, leading to the perpetuation of untruths.
3. Dependence on European Conceptual Models
: As a consequence of the Western Education of some of the scholars, their dependence on Western institutions for their academic validation and the general structure of Intellectual dominance to which many of our scholars acquiesce there is sometimes too much of a willingness to uncritically adapt Western conceptual models for analyzing Non-European realities and whose interest may be in many ways at odds with or at least different from that pursued by the European institutions. It is also important to note that for their own reasons, it might be true that some of the European scholars who look critically at European reality and hold up a mirror to its psyche do not figure highly in the mainstream which itself figures so prominently in our institutions(far less those Non-European scholars who greatly depart from set boundaries). As such, in addition to studying ourselves and those with a similar reality and challenge as us, it is valuable to study Europe but not necessarily as prescribed by Europe.
4. The Economic Exploitation of our societies
: Being as we are in a neo-colonial era where most of our societies are still very much being exploited by structures established, evolved and repackaged by The West for that purpose our countries are thrust (although not irretrievably) into a relationship of dependence on European institutions and as such are constrained in terms of the range of research, knowledge and perspectives which could be pursued in our Universities and consequently what is formally taught in our other educational institutions. Further we are also constrained in terms of even properly implementing or incorporating new knowledge relevant to us in the development of our societies. This results in a sort of debate between two specialized units (i.e the academic establishment and the political directorate) which ends in a continuance of the same i.e tonnes of knowledge produced and stored in journals (accessible by the dominant Western partners in the Academic relationship) but not employed in the service of the very societies in which they are produced; societies yet to acquire the economic and political freedom to make better use of more progressive research.
This contradiction between political will and knowledge production perhaps could be addressed if and when we decide to apply our various institutions and sectors toward actively relinquishing our dependence on and dominance by the West in all areas of our societies rather than claiming to be doing so(in printed rhetoric) without any substantial evidence of this interconnection in actual reality.
As such it appears that many of our universities are knowledge productions mills largely in the service of describing and analyzing ourselves for the purposes of others and playing "belellesh"
(waving food with no intention of sharing) with ourselves. This is further compounded by the flight of many of our scholars to the actual Western Universities to work. Like many other areas we are offered the silly consolation that "one of ours" has reached "prominence" working for the West or has been given this or that award by the West with little further evidence of what relevant benefit can accrue to our societies.
This asymmetric relationship in terms of intellectual harvest is not restricted to academia but can be extended to literature and other forms of expressive art and it may require the same holistic approach to topple the boundaries and strictures build up around our relationship to ourselves and the world based on this relationship.
Having taken the time to watch some of the presentations which formed part of this conference, I could not help thinking about the primary University in the Caribbean, The University of the West Indies(UWI) and the extent to which it engages or not within this sphere of dialogue with institutions in other parts of the Non-Western world. Or whether the motto "a light rising IN the West" speaks to a different orientation. I recall reading of a similar event addressing the issue "The teaching of African Literature in Kenyan Schools"(Decolonizing the Mind- N. Wa Thiongo pg 96)
where delegates from the University of the West Indies Mona Campus were in attendance. This Conference came at the heels of "The Great Nairobi Literature Debate"
on the teaching of literature in universities and schools beginning around 1968 when lecturers at the University of Nairobi asked for nothing less than the abolition of the English Department as it was then constituted and to replace it with a Literature Department which would remove the privilege of the English tradition as a central component and reincorporating it into a quite different order based on the centrality of the Oral tradition and Literature of Kenya and wider Africa moving outward to regions of similar reality and concerns(Diasporic/Scattered Africa, Asia and Latin America) and onward to Europe. Clearly UWI moved some way in that regard with the establishment of a Department of Literatures in English. I can only wonder about questions that ones who are more intimately connected with the runnings of this institution would be better equipped to answer:
To what are Active alliances forged by UWI with other Non-Western Universities and what fruit is born from such alliances?
To what extent is UWI subject to and influenced by the dynamics of Academic Imperialism(whether willingly accepted or otherwise)?
To what extent are the factors mentioned above influential in maintaining this asymmetric relationship and its offspring in terms of curriculum development, course offering, journals, research and action etc?
It is indeed heartening to see such events and strides being made toward creating a more balanced world but it would be even more heartening to be presented with such relevant news by our media in this part of the world and to know of strides by our own regional institutions to transcend these colonials and neo-colonial residues.
The following sources have been useful in this note:
1. http://multiworldindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/ckr-Tehran-talk-on-academic-imperialism.pdfEnding Academic Imperialism - C K Raju
- Seyyed Reza Ameli
-Munir Fasheh (Bringing Higher Education down to earth)
- Seyyed Mohammad Marandi
*Other interesting perspectives were shared other scholars also available on youtube.com including Claude Alvarez, Azizan Baharuddin(sustainable development) and Vinay lal(History, Universalized knowledge, the Nation-State, the text book).
5. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature by Ngugi Wa Thiongo
- Western Social Sciences and Africa:The Domination and Marginalisationof a Continent by Alois S. Mlambo