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Transformation, decolonisation and other vague words

“Transformation” has become a vague word. Yet the demand for university transformation is growing ever more vocal. What to make of this demand, then, is a matter of importance. This is about the only thing on which Mashupye Herbert Maserumule and I agree. I believe the other things he has said to be misguided.

I think that the following is a fair reproduction of his position. The demography of the professoriate in South Africa is mostly “white”. The terms “black” and “white”, Maserumule says, refer to something beyond skin colour. The term “black” refers to, “a state of mind: ideas and attitudes that ought to underpin a strategic gaze to transformation”. We may assume the term “white” refers to the opposite state of mind. This is consistent with what I’d previously suggested, that these colour terms are repurposed within our social discourse to take on distinct meanings. In this case, they refer to aspects of one’s psychology.

He goes on to say that university transformation requires a professoriate with a “decoloniality posture”. Unfortunately, he informs us, most academics are schooled largely in the “white tradition”. Given this, most of our academics will be reluctant to give up the “white tradition”. Or, as he puts it elsewhere, they are reluctant to escape their embeddedness in “western knowledge systems”.

It’s not made clear to what “white traditions” and “western knowledge systems” refer. He does, however, provide four examples of “knowledge” which could help generate an “African knowledge system”. One related to anthropology and social science discourse, another related to Hegel scholarship. Another is loosely about psychoanalysis, as I interpret it, and, finally, one related to history and political theory.

He suggests that academics don’t engage with this body of “knowledge” in their curricula development. But, for the sake of transformation, he believes that they should, and build their curricula using it as a foundation.

Maserumule’s position, then, involves a discussion of two issues he believes are central to “transformation”. One is the issue of university demography. The other is the issue of curricula change. On both accounts I find his remarks disagreeable.

For Maserumule, to be “black” is just to have the “right” mind-set. When he says that there aren’t enough “black” academics, unless we interpret him as being flatly inconsistent, he really means that there aren’t enough academics with the “right” mind-set. We are told without much explanation that this mind-set is one which accepts the doctrine of “decoloniality”. So the claim that there aren’t enough “black” academics is not really a claim about demography, but rather about ideology.

Given that, quite literal, interpretation there seem to be two mistakes. One is a simple misunderstanding of the issue of the demographics of our universities. Another is that it seems disagreeable to equate just change in our universities with the production of academics with particular ideologies.

That, however, would not be the most charitable interpretation. I think that what he is concerned about, primarily, is curricula transformation, rather than the demographics of the academy. Some do seem to suggest that if only there were more dark-skinned academics the rest of the transformative project, regarding curricula, would fall into place. Maserumule, it seems, wishes to caution against that view.

Being dark-skinned, he tells us, does not entail that one will have adopted the doctrine of decoloniality. It is only once one adopts that doctrine, he supposes, that one will be proactive in changing the curricula “appropriately” (appropriately according to that very doctrine in question).

His focus, then, on “black” academics is misleading. If I’ve interpreted him correctly what he really wants to say is that it is only when one has a certain mind-set that one will be willing to base one’s curricula on the “knowledge” of which he gave some examples.

What, then, of this “knowledge”? I’ve briefly noted his examples above, and one can refer to his original article for further (unclear) details if they wish to. Regarding these examples, he asks, “ … how much does a professoriate engage with this body of knowledge in their curricula development endeavours?” He suggests that academics ought to, in order to fulfil transformation goals. But I think this is too hasty.

It is quite clear that the physics curriculum, as it pertains to physics, won’t benefit from engagement in “structural functional anthropology”. Electrical engineering students won’t become better electrical engineers if they must be tested on (questionable) matters related to psychoanalysis. The tasks and goals of computer scientists and mathematicians will not be enriched by lengthy engagements with Hegel. Less cryptically, it seems that the sciences — as sciences — will not benefit from engagement with this speculative “knowledge”. The sciences can’t, it seems, be “Africanised” because they aren’t, to begin with, “westernised”.

The short answer to Maserumule’s question above is, I suspect, that not much of the professoriate does engage with that body of “knowledge” because not much of it needs to. Probably what he really means is just that the issue of curricula transformation, as he thinks of it, pertains to disciplines within the humanities.

Among those disciplines we would find political studies, anthropology, history, philosophy, literature, and much else which could more easily be founded on such “knowledge”. Rather than “the university” or “the professoriate” being at issue, I think the best interpretation of his claim is that academics within the humanities are at issue. Curricula transformation, as it pertains to content, pertains firstly, and maybe lastly, to the humanities.

It is quite easy to raise one’s fists to the call to “decolonise the curricula!”. It is not difficult to applaud when confronted with the claim that “the professoriate is embedded in western knowledge systems!”. It is easy because assenting to these claims commits one to very little. They carry, I suspect, more emotive meaning that cognitive content, which perhaps explains their growing popularity.

Now, once we do away with the jargon, and odd ambiguities, Maserumule’s claim amounts to the following — academics within the humanities haven’t accepted the doctrine of decoloniality, his preferred doctrine, hence they are unwilling, or at least unlikely, to teach students material that conforms with that doctrine. I think that is his explanation as to “why Africa’s professors are afraid to dismantle colonial education”.

Stripped of its jargon his position isn’t all that profound, and one wonders whether the jargon was a way of protecting a rather flimsy proposal? Speculation aside, his further suggestion, in the spirit of furthering transformation, is that those humanities academics ought to have the examples of “knowledge” recently cited as the foundations of their curricula. Stripped of all the jargon, is this call still so easily assented to? Does transformation require that humanities academics be made to adopt a peculiar doctrine and teach material in accordance with it? If so, should we transform?

I don’t think this is an easy statement to support, though, at least, it is more easily understood. I don’t think that academics should be made, for the sake of some political ideal, to adopt a questionable doctrine either. Nor do I really think one needs to believe in some doctrine in order to teach students about it, and to give them the tools to critically evaluate it for themselves. If transformation required all of that, then I wouldn’t be in support of it. But if I’m correct that one doesn’t need to believe in the doctrine of decoloniality in order to teach students about it then transformation, as Maserumule conceives of it, doesn’t require all of that.

The question remains why humanities academics are not using such “knowledge” as the foundation of their curricula. That, anyway, was the spirit of Maserumule’s original question, as I now interpret him. But I think it’s a misguided question to ask in the first place. “The humanities” comprises of rather distinct disciplines, the appropriate foundations of which won’t be summarized by four poorly explained examples. More appropriately, then: is such “knowledge” to serve as the foundation for any given discipline — or sub-discipline — within the humanities?

I don’t think there is any simple answer to that question. I do think, however, that it is a question worthy of further discussion. But serious discussion surely requires more than the vague assertion that ‘‘western” education in Africa is designed to “proselytise blacks”, and other, similarly intelligible, assertions made by those at the forefront of discussion. I don’t know why many insist on speaking so unhelpfully. However, I do believe that insisting so is to shirk one’s social responsibilities as an academic, or intellectual, to the wider public — especially when it comes to an issue as important as this one.

Once we remove the jargon, if I’ve interpreted Maserumule fairly, his proposal is not incomprehensible. I do think, however, that it is misguided. It is made so, in part, because it is expressed in such vague idioms which, I think, betray the seriousness of the issues. But more so because it gives a very peculiar, and overly shallow, diagnosis of the problem of “transformation”. It is not one to immediately reject, of course, but it is also not one we should uncritically accept.

We can draw certain lessons about “transformation” and “decoloniality” from Maserumule’s article. One is that the issue is best, or most plausibly, thought of as relevant for the humanities, and not for the sciences. Another is that “decoloniality” (and all its technical terminology) is one particular perspective among many, and is not the obviously right one to take. For this reason, those in favour of it need to provide arguments to support their position, rather than just — in disappointingly unclear language — asserting it as obviously or necessarily true. Moreover, those of us not in support of it should also get our chance to explain why we do not support it.

Our discussions about “transformation” can, and I think should, be elevated beyond the level of throwing big words from technical books at one another. We can and must do better in discussing our social ills, in order to accurately describe, evaluate, and eventually solve them, especially regarding such socially significant issues as this one.