The intellectual impoverishment of modern academia

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Safar 22, 1426 2005-04-01


by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Features, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 2, Safar, 1426)

The problem of the Eurocentric nature of most modern education is now widely accepted, and there are numerous efforts to try to address it by developing indigenous forms of knowledge. But this is only one of many problems in contemporary Western academic discourse. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ discusses.

It is now widely accepted by many scholars that most modern education is Eurocentric in tone and content. This conclusion has its roots in the work of several Asian, African and Latin American scholars, but has now been picked up by mainstream Western academics. Most analyses agree that the Western world and its way of thinking have become both the subject and object of academic study. The recent debates about multiculturalism in Western schools and universities are one indication of the impact of Eurocentrism. It is only very recently that non-Western forms of knowledge (which are often called "indigenous knowledges") have found a place in some academic discussions.

Western academic institutions have tried to co-opt this new train of thought and analysis by selectively hiring non-Western scholars to teach and research in the more prestigious universities of Europe and America, but these scholars are more or less limited to expounding upon (and often criticizing) their own traditions, and they are housed in departments that expect them to cover huge areas of study. Very little has really emerged to challenge the overarching Eurocentrism of modern academia. This is not hard to understand, as many do recognize that, perhaps more now than ever, "knowledge is power," and those with power are loath to give up control of the knowledge and data that support their power and dominance. What has happened, instead, is a cunning integration of carefully selected non-Western views into the modern system, as multicultural niceties. This has led to several cruel ironies. While ‘Third World' universities are often still deeply mired in colonial knowledges, Western universities have "progressed" to include selected ‘Third World' thinkers, who nevertheless must be cleared by the modern academic system. But it can also be argued that this selective integration of non-Western thought into modern universities is an indication that Western institutions are impoverished, that they have become incapable of thinking outside the structures they have made for themselves.

While Eurocentrism has become apparent because of the realization that Western knowledge is not the only or best body of knowledge available, this is just one indication that modern academia has become impoverished. Western academia, the model for modern universities the world over, has fundamentally lost its sense of purpose and direction. The most convincing arguments along these lines have come not from the selected ‘Third World' scholars inducted into the modern system, but from among the European and American scholars themselves, who are now taking a hard look at their own system and habits of thought. An early example is Clark Kerr, who wrote The Uses of the University when he was President Emeritus and former Chancellor and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. First published in 1963, it was primarily an analysis of the decline of American higher education, in which Kerr suggests that the modern university as an institution had lost its meaning, purpose and pretence to universality. Kerr suggested that, by the early 1960s, the American university had become a hybrid of the modern German research university, the American land-grant college and the British liberal-arts system, each with its own demands. However, foremost was the US government, which at that time, during the peak of the Cold War, was pouring money into American universities in order for them to engage in strategic research. Unlike in Europe and other places, where separate institutes were set up for those tasks, in the US the universities were pressed into service. So Kerr said that, with a lot of money coming from the government, the universities have to pay attention to the people with the money ("he who pays the piper calls the tune", as one English proverb runs). However, there were also other constituents. The corporate world was also beginning to make demands on academia, and the students were becoming more diverse but also dissatisfied with the system (although Kerr underestimated that dissatisfaction). So Kerr concluded that the university has multiple purposes and multiple constituents, and that it ought to serve all of them.

Ten years later, after student activism in the late 1960s shook the foundations of higher education in the Western world and Japan, Kerr wrote a follow-up chapter to the original book. After the revolts, he admitted that he had indeed underestimated student dissatisfaction, and then he reconsiders those revolts and further reflects on the state of the university. Eventually this became a habit; every ten years Harvard University Press asked Clark Kerr what he now thought about the university. So in the early nineteen-eighties, at the peak of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, he wrote another chapter on the "failed reforms" of higher education, updating and reflecting, twenty years down the road. Then, in the mid-nineties, he added three more chapters, giving attention to the waning of the "golden age of the research university," and discussing the "hard choices" of an era that had moved "from federal riches to increasing state poverty." Finally, just before he passed away recently, he added a last chapter at the dawn of the "Western millennium", in which he reflected on "the city of intellect in a century of the foxes" (alluding to Isaiah Berlin's famous essay on the fox and the hedgehog), and concluding that while a few hedgehogs need to remain "to protect university autonomy and the public weal," university presidents ought to adopt the tactics of the foxes. When one reads this book the unavoidable conclusion is that there is nothing left in the West to call a university. Clark Kerr's forty-year story is one of uncertainty. What is the university now, what is it supposed to be doing, and where it is going? Whatever Kerr's conclusions or recommendations on the history and direction of the modern Western university, it is clearly struggling to maintain itself.

Alongside Kerr's candid view from the position of a university administrator, one can also read The University in Ruins, by Bill Readings, who was an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Montreal, and who died in a plane crash in 1994 soon after completing the book. In this book, also published by Harvard University Press, Readings suggests that the Western university (and the modern university in general) has lost its purpose and its focus. After secularism eroded pre-modern religious institutions in the West, the modern university became a place for those in pursuit of "pure reason" and the Kantian project of secular enlightenment. In the nineteenth century the primary purpose of the university had become to support (even glorify) the nation-state, with the Humboltian-style university of Germany being the model for the modern national research university. Then, continuing into the twentieth century, Readings finds the decline of the national university and the emergence of what he calls the "university of excellence," which is another way of talking about what others call the corporatization or commercialisation of the university.

Coming from a rather different perspective than Clark Kerr's, Readings identified the problem in the early nineteen-nineties, on the heels of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, before it had become so painfully apparent, and before most academics were willing to admit it: that the modern university was being hijacked by corporations, and that the world of business was beginning to rule, with its economy-oriented, accountant-managed, profit-motivated mentality, driven by "standards" and with "excellence" as its prime defining feature. The purpose of the university was no longer the pursuit of pure reason, nor the edification of the nation-state. The modern Western university had evolved into the "university of excellence." But, as Readings cogently points out, "excellence" is a vapid concept, with no referent. Universities can be excellent at anything, and what is excellent to one person may not be so great for another, which means that "excellence" has no real meaning. The university of pure reason and the national university had points of reference. The university of excellence has no reference point, as Readings sees it, and no foundation. So the Western university has lost its meaning and its purpose. As Readings evocatively admits, we are left with the "university in ruins." However, as a dedicated university professor, he concludes that academics ought to learn to "dwell in the ruins," and he puts forth a way to think about that, suggesting that the university can become a "community of dissensus" and raising a number of sophisticated and interesting points about cultural studies and the "post-historical university." His prospectus to "dwell in the ruins," ironically, is a return to the pre-modern university as a sort of secular monastery, or an "ivory tower," a place of retreat for elitist thinkers. But, in the end, on some level, Readings concurs with Kerr, that the Western university is lost if it has no clear purpose.

As an Ummah faced with the modern university as an institution plagued by Eurocentrism and as an impoverished entity with no clear purpose, what are Muslims to do with the modern university? Should we wait out this period of uncertainty until the West can get its act together, and then follow once more? If we do so, we will end up with the epitome of the colonised mind, or the "captive mind," as Syed Hussein Alatas has put it. Perhaps this period of uncertainty is an opportunity for us to escape captivity, to move on, to walk out of the modern university, in the Islamic tradition of hijrah. That will not be easy, because modern schooling and universities have done great damage to our understanding of knowledge and learning, to the point that most people now equate attending a modern institution with "seeking knowledge," and have become incapable of considering (or even imagining) other options. Even those who can admit that most modern schools and universities are impoverished will resort to the notion that they at least provide a space for social interaction, which is now probably one of the few defensible reasons for attending modern institutions. On the other hand, those who want to walk out of the system need to ask whether human societies can absorb waves of refugees from its own institutions, since schools and universities are a part of the societies that support them. The sad fact is that most people are addicted to institutions and unable to cope without them. However, there are cogent arguments, and many movements afoot, for walking out of the system and seeking other modes of being, other knowledges, other educations and other ways of learning, that are better rooted in our communities. Perhaps now is the best time to explore those options, and to discover the true wealth of our own histories and experiences.

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