Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Western vs Imperial Knowledge

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While working with a group of wonderful educators on a conference workshop, Sukaina Walji shared this wonderful article by Raewyn Connell on decolonizing curriculum. I remember at the time tweeting many parts of it, but now re-reading it, I feel the need to blog some quotes and thoughts to enable me to keep coming back to it.

One of the most important distinctions the article makes is that the significant critique of power in the state of knowledge is not so much that it is Western as that it is Imperial, in the sense of having been built during colonial expansion. It is interwoven with the knowledge of the colonized but organized and legitimated and given power and privilege by the colonizers.

The basic problem in the coloniality of knowledge is not a clash of cultures, but the operation of social power. It is power that has allowed unequal appropriations of knowledge, and marginalization of other knowledge formations. Shaped into the hegemonic curriculum in a selective education system, it also delivers privilege. Thus higher education has been connected with wealth and poverty, gender, racial divisions and language – all around the world. The growth of a ruthless transnational capitalism, abetted by neoliberal state elites, is making this worse.

The basic problem in the coloniality of knowledge is not a clash of cultures, but the operation of social power. It is power that has allowed unequal appropriations of knowledge, and marginalization of other knowledge formations. Shaped into the hegemonic curriculum in a selective education system, it also delivers privilege. Thus higher education has been connected with wealth and poverty, gender, racial divisions and language – all around the world. The growth of a ruthless transnational capitalism, abetted by neoliberal state elites, is making this worse.

I think of the historical role of Arabs/Muslims… Themselves at one point colonizers. We (Arabs/Muslims) take pride in the ways in which Muslims took past knowledge from Greeks and Romans and translated it and made it accessible in modern languages and extended it. Which was then used by Europeans. I guess both what the Arabs did and what the Europeans did is imperialistic? I don’t know enough about either to be sure. The author here writes of knowledge produced in the Islamic Golden age in a positive connotation, even though at the time, this knowledge came from the dominant majority and not the colonized. I guess it’s also important to recall Bhabha’s point about hybridity. The colonized are no longer coming from a pure culture we can separate out and “return” to. We are already hybrid and the concern is not to return to some pure form of indigenous culture (i don’t even know what that means in Egypt which is historically such a mix of cultures) but to ensure our hybridity is reflected in our approach to knowledge, neither eschewing the dominant and colonial (for it offers social mobility and power) nor more local knowledge (which is harder to gain and maintain but we should strive towards bringing it forward).

Despite the superficiality of my historical knowledge… I can say for sure that it’s not the use and expansion of knowledge that is the problem, but rather the use of particular forms of knowledge to assert and exert power and exacerbate inequality that is the problem. Connell continues:

The hegemonic curriculum has also, paradoxically, been a means of social mobility, and many challenges to privilege. Research-based knowledge demands critique of received ideas. Universities are privileged institutions but surprisingly often have been sites of dissent against state, church and corporate elites.

I also found this part really relevant

In an education oriented to democracy, all learners are advantaged, not disadvantaged, by others’ success in learning. And that is only likely to happen through curriculum that emphasises shared knowledges and cooperative learning.

Much of the way education is organized around individual achievement makes inequality almost inevitable. It is in some people’s advantage to be differentiated from others, whether that privilege is earned or automatic because of cultural and social capital of school fitting well with their (dominant) identity and social standing.

I am always reminded of Shor and Freire’s book Pedagogy of Liberation, where they emphasize the importance of learning both the dominant and non-dominant cultures, and of learning to be critical of both, rather than privileging one over the other. Edward Said refused to work with Palestinian leaders to create a nationalistic curriculum because it is not the answer,but rather an unproductive (though understandable) reaction to coloniality.

I keep thinking about how so much of what we see as problematic concepts in cultures outside our own, can both have resonance in our own culture but with a contextual twist, or end up being worth considering even if foreign. For example, the practice of democracy in Western politics seems highly problematic to me (and I guess not really democratic in the sense of truly sharing power) but the practice in my own country and region is obviously nowhere near ideal and quite oppressive. But Islam has a notion of “Shura”, which is about how decisions should be discussed among the people and not made only be leaders or those in power. Achieving this (if it gets practiced at all) may look different from democracy, but the idea of sharing power exists. When teaching young people about such notions, it matters that they learn both the Western way which is currently dominant and being applied (and its critiques) and to know that one’s own culture carries similar ideas, how they intersect and differ, and the critiques of the theory and the practice. I think in some ways, social action is very difficult to cultivate if one always feels like knowledge is something important from outside. Which is how much of education would be if we don’t stop and do something about it.

I’ll give a quick example before I end this. So much of the critiques of digital platforms and how they use and abuse our data comes from the West. So much of it does not resonate with me because political surveillance seems so much more dangerous than platform capitalism. I realized that Zeynap Tufecki’s critiques here resonate the most with me, because she connects both, bridges East(ish) and West, and it appears clearer to me when she talks about it from her background as a Turkish academic, not just a Western(based) one.

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