Evaluating and redefining western academic disciplines

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Dhu al-Qa'dah 20, 1425 2005-01-01


by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Features, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 11, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1425)

The academic disciplines through which most people study and understand modern life are almost entirely based on Western historical experiences and the needs opf western societies. They thus remain replete with cultural and political implications that few understand. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ discusses efforts to criticaly redefine these disciplines.

Most of what are today known as the “academic disciplines” are relatively recent constructs. It is true that a few disciplines, such as philosophy and physics, have their roots in the ancient (i.e. pre-Western) world, but the particular form and content of the academic disciplines as practised today developed during the modern age, often to address the needs and concerns of Western industrial societies.

They may have been born, or at least developed their contemporary forms, in the West, but those academic disciplines have now gone global. From Cairo to Kuala Lumpur, any survey of universities in the world today will reveal an almost complete consensus on what constitutes academic disciplines, with the modern Western knowledge-system reigning supreme. This can be explained in part by colonialism: the European and American powers that colonized the world brought with them not only their guns and laws, but also their sciences, and more often than not imposed those sciences on the colonized peoples. However, long after the colonizers were driven out, their sciences and institutions remain, while the former colonial metropoles are often the most sought-after places to obtain an education and training in any of the modern academic disciplines.

Whatever the discipline or location, most courses of study in most universities today follow a similar trajectory: first identifying the great European or American men of each discipline and then drilling their theories and practices as if they were universal, while ignoring or undermining most other forms of knowledge. Thus in biology genetics dominates, having supplanted cell biology and the analysis of ecosystems after Western scientists isolated the double-helix structure of DNA, while completely ignoring Islamic biological knowledge. Physics dwells on Isaac Newton’s model, with a taste of Einsteinian relativity and modern quantum mechanics for the adventurous, but neglecting the pre-Newtonian physics that enabled Muslim architects to build magnificent structures. The staple of any mathematics degree is the differential and integral calculus, but with most indigenous knowledge (such as the Muslim roots of algebra) filtered carefully through the modern worldview. Students of philosophy run the gamut of Western thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Sartre, but with no more than a passing nod to the great Muslim philosophers: Ghazali, Ibn Rushd and Mulla Sadra, for instance. Western medicine is based on a mechanistic Cartesian model, with mastery of surgical and pharmaceutical technique being the ultimate goal; the humoral medicine developed and practised by pioneering Muslim physicians such as Ibn Sina is undermined or even ridiculed. Western chemistry strips away the spiritual aspects of its Muslim ancestor, alchemy. Sociology often begins with the work of Durkheim, while Weber is having a revival, but Ibn Khaldun receives little more than a historical footnote. Those studying economics will learn all about Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, and perhaps even Marx, before delving into Milton Friedman, neo-liberalism and the techniques of transnational capitalism, but rarely will any course of study consider the economic and financial implications of the Islamic ban on usury. In short, from history and political science to agriculture and health care, Western knowledge is the only knowledge admitted to be valid and relevant today, and the only knowledge considered to haveany claim to universality. Cherokee scholar Ward Churchill has aptly labelled this amalgam of Western thought and practice “White Studies,” which is his succinct way of identifying what might be more politely, but also more cumbersomely, referred to as a “Euro-American-centric knowledge system”. In any case, pursuing an education and training in White studies today means adhering to theories and practices that were developed largely alongside the emergence of Western modernity.

As well as evaluating the content of modern academic disciplines, we will eventually have to consider the institutional structure of White studies, which has enabled modern higher education to normalize most forms of Western knowledge. Higher education relies on a rigid compartmentalization of knowledge, developed in its present form during the nineteenth century and further modified during the Cold War era. Supposedly rooted in Western civilization by way of the Seven Greek Sciences, the Roman Quadrivium and the Enlightenment’s Useful Arts, White studies as presently organised and taught in most modern universities assumes that the best way to control thought is to make sure that no one ever sees the “big picture”: how the Useful Arts fit together, how the Quadrivium meshes with the Seven Sciences, and so forth. Compartmentalization was perfected during the Manhattan Project, under the direction of General Leslie R. Groves, who later admitted that his main achievement was to compartmentalize, and thus control, the scientific research that led to the invention of the atombomb. During the Cold War, most universities in the West adopted this strategy. Within the limited “independence” of all the formerly colonized nation-states, local universities adopted or continued the compartmentalized structure of White studies as their guiding and normative mode of thought and action.

Graduates with a degree in a White studies academic discipline usually use their limited sense of empowerment to reproduce Western modernity. Muslims sometimes take comfort from the pious fraud that Western knowledge is the sum total of human knowledge, or that because Muslims had a hand in developing some of these sciences centuries ago they can continue to be enslaved by them now, in their modern, secular forms, with a clear conscience. The resulting pathological condition, often referred to as being “educated,” eventually means in effect that one takes Western science (including the “social sciences” and “humanities”) as the arbiter of truth and the definition of reality, even in matters of religion and ethics. This means that in order to think one must do so through the lens of Western knowledge; and that unlimited technological progress and economic growth are accepted as the keys to human happiness. It means that quantity is more important than quality, and that technique and efficiency must govern every aspect of a desacralized life. Muslims looking for guidance and prosperity through White studies may find that the best they can attain is to practise Islam in private and let the West do the rest in public. This is equally true for anyone else attempting to live within or revive any number of traditional cultures, because most of the world is firmly ensconced today in a system created and maintained by the purveyors of White studies.

Part of this problem is that people still see schools and universities as the only places where knowledge and learning reside. Although it is possible to seek knowledge and learning outside such institutions, and indeed there are many efforts afoot in this direction, as long as significant numbers of people attend these institutions there are basically two choices: accept the theories and practices of the institution, or try to change them from within. The former, by and large, has been the primary method pursued since the inception of colonialism. The latter method, to change the institutions from within, has also been attempted but, despite their pretensions to liberty and progress, most Western institutions (academic and otherwise) are notoriously conservative. Still, given the situation that most peoples in the ‘third world’, Muslims included, are (or feel) constrained to seek knowledge and learning from these institutions, the second option – to work from within to change them – seems at least possible, at least on the face of it. This would have to occur on many fronts at the same time, on the institutional level, but also on the crucial level of individual disciplines and programmes of study, some of which may be more open to change than others. In fact, academic disciplines have undergone a few paradigm-shifts here and there (the adoption of plate tectonics in geology and the rise of cultural studies in the humanities, for instance), so it is perhaps most wise to look at what might be called “discipline clusters” for opportunities of evaluation and redesign.

One such effort, in the social sciences, is currently being made by the Multiworld Network and the Multiversity Group. In November last year, a meeting was held in Penang, Malaysia, entitled “Redesign of Social Science Curricula,” in which the social sciences in the ‘third world’ were evaluated and proposals put forth for their redesign. It was the first meeting of its kind: in particular, its organisers and conveners were determined not to invite any scholars from the West, or former colonial powers, their intention being to keep the work in the hands of ‘third world’ peoples. A few of those who were invited are based for the time being in Western universities, an African-American scholar and a South Asian scholar residing in the US and a West African scholar living in France, but they were invited because of their reputations for questioning and challenging the disciplines in which they work. Apart from these few exceptions, most of the participants came directly from universities, institutions and organizations based in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

After a speech by Koh Tsu Koon, the chief minister of Penang, who welcomed the participants, the tone of the proceedings was set by Claude Alvares, convener of the meeting and also a co-creator of Multiversity. He first laid out the main goals of Multiversity: to “excoriate, critique, ridicule and debunk” the Eurocentric model currently reigning in higher education, to develop a new “science of Europology,” to “exhume the deep political biases” of conventional social sciences, to evaluate the assumptions of inherited or borrowed social sciences, to create better and more meaningful curricula, and to promote better methods of academic research. After the opening speeches, Haji Mohammad Idris, the Director of Citizens International, who hosted the meeting, spoke on the necessity of such endeavors and compared the graduates of most university programmes to “parrots,” who are “generally kept in cages and expected to repeat what they are taught,” noting that with very few exceptions this system has not been challenged. Complete texts of the opening speeches are currently available online atwww.multiworld.org and related documents are online at groups.msn.com/multiversity.

The first day’s panel sessions were highlighted by a talk from Syed Hussein Alatas, who revisited his idea of “the captive mind.” This was followed by Yusef Progler, who outlined the problem of “white studies and the university in ruins,” and who asked whether it was better to “vacate the space” or “dwell in the ruins.” Vinay Lal brought the busy first day to a close with a discussion of “history and its enslavements.” The second day of the meeting was dedicated to reports from social scientists currently working in South-East Asia and Africa, with a focus on local languages. Clemen Aquino discussed the challenges of integrating local languages into psychology curricula in the Philippines, and Vimbai Chivaura of Zimbabwe discussed African cultures and languages as a knowledge-base for social-science curricula. These sessions were summed up by the sociologist Fred Y.L. Chiu (who lives in Hong Kong), who discussed other ways of doing social and cultural anthropology, based on the works of Afro-Asian scholars. The second day ended with an open discussion led by Ashis Nandy of Delhi, who had earlier circulated a note on possible follow-up activities to the meeting. Many of the papers read at the conference will be published in the January-February 2005 issue of the journal Third World Resurgence, and selected video-clips and excerpts from the daily sessions are available online at the Multiworld Network and Multiversity Group sites mentioned above.

The third day of panel sessions was dedicated to reports from various organizations and institutes on their innovative social-science-related activities, with emphasis on practice. Farid Alatas outlined his efforts at “creating our own sociology,” based on his work with curriculum-development at Singapore University, and Sunil Sahasrabudhey of Benares, India, introduced “people’s knowledge.” Jorge Ishizawa from Peru discussed the work being done by the Project on Andean Technology (PRATEC), and in particular their work with local campesinos (peasant farmers), whose acceptance of the world as it is, coupled with a “passionate involvement in a nurturing relationship with everything that exists in the locality,” has made the central Andes an important center of “cultivated biodiversity.” The last session was a dual presentation by Wasif Rizvi and Yasmeen Bano of Pakistan, reflecting on the relationship between education and development.

After the panel sessions came a series of workshops dedicated to forming working groups to take on responsibility for furthering the meeting’s goals, with several groups taking shape around the various social-science disciplines, the members of each agreeing to evaluate curricula in their own locales and to collaborate on designing improved or parallel curricula. There will be a follow-up meeting later this year to present these works. In addition to the workshop, a draft note was circulated outlining several further steps that might be taken: these proposals included making the meeting materials available to all participants and other interested parties, to set up panels to evaluate existing textbooks for biases, to identify less-prejudiced textbooks, and to produce resources that can be adopted by university programmes and professors. Some less modest ambitions were also suggested, such as organizing exchange-programmes to promote more intensive collaborative work, undertaking translations into vernacular languages that profit-minded publishers generally ignore, and producing bibliographic essays by southern scholars, which can serve as handbooks to what is happening outside the West.

In the end, the success of such a meeting must depend largely on the dedication and perseverance of its participants, so only time will tell whether this meeting will bear lasting fruit. Indications are that the Multiworld Network and the Multiversity Group have identified and connected with an already-existing suspicion of colonial knowledge and Western hegemony, coupled with a yearning to reclaim or nurture local knowledges, so the project has potential as a first step. At the same time, similar projects with similar goals need to be undertaken in other academic disciplines, especially law and the natural sciences. These projects must both examine the Eurocentric views that pass as universal knowledge in those fields, to evaluate the relevance of those knowledge-systems to the needs and interests of peoples in various locales, in particular in the South or ‘third world’, and finally link up with existing projects that are also pursuing the important goal of revitalising local bodies of knowledge and experience.

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