Academic Colonialism, False Consciousness, and the Western University Ideal

Is the spread of the Western higher education model around the world evidence that repressive colonialism is alive and well in academe? Apparently so, according to a statement issued by participants in the International Conference on Decolonizing Our Universities, held recently at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. The authors of the manifesto, which I read about last week in GlobalHigherEd, minced no words in describing the alleged harm done to universities outside the West by “the tutelage and tyranny of Western institutions.” They complained that in non-Western nations “indigenous intellectual traditions” have been denigrated and marginalized.

The group, which included participants from Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, and Uganda, duly issued a call to action: “We are firmly convinced that every trace of Eurocentrism in our universities – reflected in various insidious forms of western controls over publications, theories, and models of research must be subordinated to our scintillating cultural and intellectual traditions.” And so forth. For good measure, participants showed that they weren’t afraid to take things to the next level: they wrote a letter to UNESCO.

How seriously should one take such concerns? I’ve certainly heard assorted variations on these themes – mostly without the silly rhetoric, thankfully – from people who worry, for instance, that growing aspirations in the developing world to create Western-style world-class universities will result in a global homogenization of academic institutions. One Indian university president used the term “glocalization” to describe to me the balance he believes ought to be struck between a nation’s universities and the worldwide academic culture in which so many now operate. Many scholars in non-English speaking nations worry that growing pressures to publish in English will erode the study of certain national literatures and politics. And national-global tensions aren’t necessarily a function of language. An Australian economist who focuses on domestic public policy was among those who condemned government research rankings (since revamped) that gave the highest marks only to those who published in top international journals.

But if the rapid globalization of universities is certainly not without complications, it’s worth remembering that the Western university model has become dominant for a reason. While Western universities are not monolithic, the best among them are justly renowned for their massive contributions to the world’s store of knowledge (including knowledge of indigenous cultures in other countries). That’s precisely why countries such as China and South Korea want to emulate those institutions. More broadly, it’s hard to see how such admirable principles as freedom of inquiry, high standards of evidence, and merit-based hiring can be legitimately classified as colonialist practices. Recall, too, that the American liberal-arts model, with its emphasis on analytical thinking, is now widely admired in Asia – presumably because it has broad applicability across a range of cultures. And, of course, students from around the world flock to Western universities in massive numbers, seeking out precisely the kind of education that allegedly squelches their native traditions.

Could these mobile students suffer from what Marxist theory calls false consciousness, not understanding the nature of their own oppression? Hardly. After assessing the options available to them at home and further afield, they’re pursuing the opportunities that seem most desirable. Any country that wants to keep larger numbers of those students at home will have to create more, not fewer, Western-style educational options. Talk of colonialist academic oppression may make for stirring conference manifestos, but it fundamentally misreads the appeal of the Western academic model – and its unmistakable merits.

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