Revealing Uncomfortable Truths

De-colonializing higher education: A challenge to academic scholarship

Students in South Africa want to move away from curricula based solely on colonial paradigms. This, write two academics from the University of Johannesburg, presents a serious challenge to tertiary level educators.

The student protests against fee increases in the higher education system that hit campuses around the country and saw many campuses shut down amidst fear of violence and rougue actions by students have reached a temporary impasse with the decision of a 0% fees increase for next year.

However, we know that the students’ concerns go beyond immediate financial concerns. The protest should also be seen in the context of calls for transformation of the higher education system and most importantly a de-colonialization of curricula.

In this regard, lecturers as well as university leadership will have to take seriously their engagement with their student base and start querying some of the underlying structures of our higher education system.

We need to rethink the place of higher education in relation to political, economic, social and cultural developments and trajectories hereof in South Africa and the global South and challenge ideas of the global as only referring to the global North.

While, debates about transformation in the higher education system can hardly have escaped anyone, discussions and real attempts at also transforming what we teach, how we teach it and the relevance it bears on our society and a global world order has been paid less attention. We need to engage and luister to our students around their aspirations, the relevance of curricula, and most importantly around what we teach and how we teach it.

It is time we challenge existing epistemology and ideas of truth within the disciplines that we teach and research. It is time we dare scholars to see the inherent insularity of the ways in which many academic disciplines have created their own truths steeped in archaic, patriarchal and decidedly racialised ideas of the West and the rest. In essence it is time that we recognise the experiences and scholarship of the global South as not only equal to the global North, but also necessary for, the advancement of global scholarship as a whole. As such we need to find ways to rethink higher education and scholarship not only in South Africa and the post-colony but also in the global North, often held as the norm for curricula and scholarship in the global South.

The theoretical point is that deliberately or otherwise, dominant Western scholarship reflects and equates Northern histories as though the rest either do not exist or only exist to the extent that it either aids or does not interfere with Northern doctrinal theorization, denying our common humanity, shared history and future.

We propose that Western scholarship is entrenched in positions that make scholars unlikely to see beyond what the ramparts of compartmentalising social structures and institutional boundaries guide them to see. We argue that scholars in the global North as well as the global South are blinkered by social moulds and thinking that misshape, violate and transgress against the inalienable rights of people and as such denying the ways in which people are unique beings.

In the words of writer Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o it is time we move the centre by “swimming, towards… the sea of our connections with our common humanity”. As such we take serious, and advance, projects of de-colonialization by developing new methodologies and theory in academic scholarship and teaching curricula that breaks with existing Western dominated scholarship and epistemology. This, in order to grab hold of truths, that matter not only to the global South, but humanity as a whole.

The question is, how? How do marginalised scholars in the global South conduct research when its histories and epistemologies severely privilege Western ideas?

In Africa, as scholar Achille Mbembe says, “there is a sensory experience of our lives that encompasses innumerable unnamed and un-nameable shapes, hues and textures that ‘objective knowledge’ has failed to capture”. Like Mbembe, we seek to open academia and scholarship up to “unforeseen directions” by proposing a way to develop new theory and knowledge that breaks with Northern orthodoxy.

To do this, we rather controversially, argue that if scholars are to break through the insularity of present Western dominated scholarship they will have to become burglars that ‘smash-and-grab’ valuables from established doctrinal orders. Even in using scholarship often produced in the West, or for the West, marginalized scholars can become poachers that ‘smash’ trough the orthodoxy and ‘grab’ their own critical meanings and in the extension construct new theory and bodies of scholarship.

To break with supposed orthodox practices and ways of thinking about academic research and instead embrace the multiple possibilities for research that a ‘smash and grab’ epistemology opens up, we use the somewhat disturbing yet archetypical figure of the ‘trickster’ as an analogy for a ‘smash-and-grab’ approach to academic research. By way of example, undercover journalism and ‘Wallraffing’ so important to investigative journalism and the uncovering of hidden truths might entail illegal actions yet be ethically permissible and necessary for a free and open societal debate. Maybe better yet is the analogy of a ‘Robin Hood’ that steals from the proverbial ‘rich’ to give to the ‘poor’. We argue that here is honour when, á la Robin Hood, academics poach valuable insights and expose hidden truths in order to ‘feed’ the multitudes starved of a scholarship that bears, not only on them, but humanity itself.

No doubt some will be made uneasy by the use of the terms ‘smash and grab’. After all, we are writing this amidst renewed conservative Western fears of the ‘empire striking back’ with supposed violent hordes of colonialized, provincialized and marginalized peoples smashing through Western boundaries previously the preserve, and house, of an imagined (insular) Western civilization.

As such we anticipate some defensiveness from scholars who may think that ‘smash-and-grab’ scholarship sounds too ‘primitive’. However, what is easily lost in such narratives is that human beings, in the words of Wa Thiong’o, “use tools, technology, to wrest a living from nature”. Archaeologists have produced a solid body of work on lithic primates “smashing and grabbing” to produce tools enabling comparatively physically weak humans to shape and dominate the world.

Science works in similar ways and scientific developments show how humans have culturally evolved by enabling both normal and revolutionary ideas to emerge and smash into each other to grab hold of new insights and truths. In essence humans have evolved and come to dominate the world through ‘smashing and grabbing’ in order to create conditions for survival. As such, scholars who ‘smash-and-grab’ for meanings and truths hidden, or yet to be established, can create bodies of work that serve their own purpose and reality.

No doubt, the development of a ‘smash and grab’ approach to scholarly work will take courage. It will take daring. It will require moves that break with doctrinal Western thoughts. It will reveal uncomfortable truths but also inevitably open up possibilities for creating new scholarship that creates meanings and insights other than those emanating from the global North. Scholarship that can serve our shared present and future.

Colin Chasi is Vice-Dean of Humanities and Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Johannesburg and Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg and a Senior Associate Researcher with the Stanhope Centre for International Communications Policy Research at the London School of Economics.