This is going to be a post based on a talk I gave last week (I have always wanted to say that, please forgive the pretentiousness). It was loosely about ‘Liberating Academia’ and what that would entail. Two other amazing panellists talked about their experiences and ideas too and for my part, I talked about my experience studying history and my conception of what liberation would look like.
To begin with it is worth noting that ‘history’ is not neutral. History is not just about the past and about ‘recovery’ but often about creation and construction. It is the nature of power to dominate by marginalising and subordinating others. Outside of the material realm this happens through the construction of narratives legitimising the power of the dominant group and stories that suggest that things are how they are because they have always been this way. For instance, a paper I took on the history of ‘Political Thought’ consisted only of men from European countries. The reason this is a problem is that it maintains Eurocentrism and patriarchy by suggesting that only European men have had valuable or relevant ‘political thoughts’. This perpetuates what then becomes a commonsensical narrative that we feed back and forth to one another and accept as ‘historical fact’: that the foundations and roots of all important thinking and of the ‘modern world’ itself, are rooted in the minds of European men. Aside from how violently this erases everybody else from history, the very fact of erasure also maintain the present status quo by implying that perhaps the reason non-men and non-Europeans are absent from such histories is because they have been inherently unable to think thoughts as valuable. In creating a paper that has only European men’s writings in it you actively construct a narrative about the past that shapes how we understand the present. Erasing the thoughts of other people, or attributing their thoughts to European men (since so many other people’s epistemologies were destroyed, stolen and appropriated) is to violently omit their existence and undermine their present legitimacy too.
The other problem with the Eurocentrism of history in general is that it not only means we rarely get a chance to study areas of the world outside of Europe, but that when we do, we centre Europe. Many non-European papers begin at the temporal moment that Europe began interacting with that area of the world. Of course, European imperialism and colonialism cannot be erased from histories of the world, but the implication that the world did not exist before Europe interacted with it, is dangerous. It means that Europe is the focal point of history even when it isn’t. It means that we constantly use Europe as a standard by which to measure everything else. We have to know about European development and goings-on to understand and find a language to explain the rest of the world. It’s the same for histories recovering the roles of women. Men are still the standard by which we explain their actions and we have to consider what men were thinking and doing to understand the context for women’s actions. The inequality lies in the fact that you may study Europe without having to understand the global context, and you may study only male actors without ever having to understand women’s simultaneous lives. Obviously this limits history. We’re missing massive contexts and we’re not even obliged to understand them. This privileges European men since everything that happens can only be attributed to them. In writing others out of history we suggest that their very existence is necessarily less important than European men’s.
Not only do we delegitimise everyone else by creating ‘histories’ that exclude them, but we also delegitimise them when we include them. By this, I mean that because academia generally privileges certain forms of historical knowledge over others – paper-archives and visual sources for instance – every life that has no such record to prove it’s existence and experience, is less academically ‘acceptable’ and thus less ‘true’. More broadly this has contributed to the erasure of societies with rich oral traditions, or methods of remembering or recording the past that don’t entail paper-archives, and often, such sources are deemed problematic in that they cannot be accurate ‘records’ of the past; as if such records exist anywhere.
This methodological delegitimisation brings me to the third point which is that the method of arguing history – the method of constructing and interpreting the past – is harmful in so many ways, but especially when practiced by the already-privileged. To create an academic argument you must use ‘evidence’ to back up an ‘interpretation’. This transformation of real lives and real people into ‘evidence’, is, in my opinion, an abstraction and dehumanisation of life. I am not arguing that we should never try to understand experiences because as soon as we impose theory we detach the experience from the human life; I am arguing that we must be aware of when we do so and ask whether it is for more than mere academic play. There is a violence in abstracting lived experience for historical argumentation, especially when it is done in privileged academic spaces and to underprivileged people’s lives. I myself am guilty of doing this and I wonder whether the harms of intellectualising and theorising on people’s lived experiences really outweighs the hope of ‘writing them back into’ historical narratives.
What would a liberated academia look like then? It’s hard to imagine, but I know what I wouldn’t want it to look like. I wouldn’t want simply more ‘diverse’ curriculums because I fear that in arguing that it had ‘diversified’, academia would not be forced to ‘decolonise’. Adding ‘alternative’ papers or ‘women’s histories’ would maintain the current hierarchy and would not undermine the idea that Western male thoughts and actions are more legitimate than others’. Moreover, it would not challenge the sort of knowledge that we accept as legitimate. I envisage that non-European and women’s knowledge would be absorbed only when it appeared in canonical and archive-based forms – continuing the under-privileging of other forms of knowledge and thought that doesn’t appear in the ‘acceptable’ and ‘conventional’ forms.
What I do want then is space for multiple forms of knowledge and multiple people’s knowledge. I want a realisation that the ideas of Western men aren’t going to give us the key to solving or understanding everything. Academia would not only be liberated but would benefit from the inclusion of more people. I want a reconstruction of the way we think about history itself – an acknowledgement that we learn specific and politicised narratives that are never neutral. I want a culture change. I want us to ask why we educate our children in the way we do, what the aim of education is, what the aim of compartmentalising knowledge is and why we test in the way we do. I want to be encouraged not to ‘master the canon’ but to challenge it and question why it is the canon. I want knowledge not only for the sake of itself, but to liberate those it currently does not. We have to stop pretending knowledge is not oppressive and hegemonic. We need completely new attitudes and expectations; we need a political movement and we need hope. We need collaboration with eachother rather than the absurd segregation of ‘academics’ and ‘undergraduates’; we need to stop thinking of education as a commodity and we need to not be exhausted by the education system. We need to have time to question academia as well as pursuing it, we need vibrancy and energy and excitement. We need liberation.
‘Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim.’ [The Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) – narrated by Anas bin Malik; Sunan Ibn e Majah, Book of Sunnah, Hadith no.224, Classified as Sahih By Allama Albani.]