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Decolonising the Euro-American universities' curriculum

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 05, 2024

It was one of those trips that I find particularly gruesome. On Tuesday, I travelled from Boston, USA, to Edmonton, Canada, via Minneapolis, to participate in a conference, "Pan Africanism: Decolonising the University Curriculum", at the University of Alberta. When I arrived, the temperature was -15F. It was freezing cold.

This conference was organised by Prof Andy McKnight, a University of Alberta Distinguished Professor, who comes from an outstanding academic and political Caribbean family. He is related to Sir Grantley Adams, the first premier of Barbados and only president of the short-lived West Indian Federation; and Tom Adams, the son of Grantley Adams and second prime minister of that island.

Prof McKnight brought together scholars from the Caribbean, Canada, the United States and South Africa to examine the Eurocentric nature of the university curriculum in those countries that still perpetuates the myth that all wisdom comes from the West. This European slant to the curriculum took on much more importance after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the city that I passed through on my way to Edmonton.

Europe wasn't always the centre of the world's production of knowledge. Knowledge production, as we now understand it, began with the ancient Egyptians and the Greeks. Most of this ancient knowledge (particularly that of the Greeks) was kept alive by the Islamic scholars who translated many of those classical works from Greek to Arabic during the fifth to 15th centuries.

Some scholars have argued that "the transmission of the Greek Classics to Latin Western Europe during the Middle Ages was a key factor in the development of intellectual life in Western Europe". The celebrated Renaissance was merely a rediscovery of those classical texts by Europeans during the 15th and 17th centuries.

Africa also played its part in the retention and dissemination of knowledge. Between the 12th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu, an ancient city in Mali, was one of the most important educational and cultural centres in the world. In its golden age, "the town's numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading networks made possible an important book trade: together with the campus of the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university". At its height as many as 25,000 students, a quarter of the population, studied there.

The present colonisation of the curriculum in Western cities has been in the making for over two centuries. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, one of the most influential scholars of the 19th century, tried to downplay Africa's importance in world history by referring to Africa as "the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night".

In the 1960s, Hugh Trevor-Roper, an Oxford scholar, alleged that there was no such thing as African history: "[There is] only the history of Europeans, in Africa. The rest is darkness." According to these formulations, history began with the arrival of Europeans in Africa and their writing about that vast continent. Their presence in Africa was therefore justified, among other things, by the ability of white people to place Africa in "the path to history".

However, in 1791, a half-million enslaved people in Haiti rose up and struck a blow for their liberation. In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor, moved to re-establish slavery and the Code Noir in Haiti. He arrested Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave who led the Haitian revolution, and deported him to France, where he died in the Jura Mountains in 1803.

By 1804, the Haitians broke France's hold upon them. A new military leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, drove France out of the island. He possessed little of L'Ouverture's sympathy for Western enlightenment. In the process, the United States gained Louisiana, the biggest land acquisition in its history. Our own CLR James told this story in The Black Jacobins (1938).

Minerva, a German magazine, covered the Haitian Revolution. It was from this journal that Hegel got his seminal idea of the relationship between lordship and bondage. Susan Buck-Moss, an American philosopher, revealed: "In perhaps the most political expression of his career, he used the sensational events of Haiti as the linchpin in his argument in The Phenomenology of Spirit."

It was Hegel's work that gave rise to the assumption that "the norms of Western rationality had acquired some kind of universal validity". Michel Foucault, another major French scholar, proposed a more direct critique about the Western notion of superiority. He wrote that "the Western claim to represent the epitome of humanity was actually based on economic domination and political hegemony".

In other words, the whole claim about the superiority of Western culture and enlightenment was based on false assumptions. Africans, beginning with the Egyptians, the Islamic schools in Timbuktu, down to Hegel's use of the Haitian revolution to create his philosophical masterpiece, contributed to the assumptions of white superiority that we see in our universities' curriculum today. Most scholars seldom acknowledge this fact.

The whole attempt to decolonise the universities' curriculum comes down to the fact that we must begin to recognise these "illegitimate" sources of wisdom. The scholarship of black people has always been central to Western education even though Western universities try to deny this. Although black and brown people have been there from the beginning, the struggle to assert their rightful place in the academy still remains an uphill task.

—Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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