Many of the subjects taught in modern schools and universities trace their intellectual lineage back to ‘classical’ European thinkers ranging from Ancient Greece to 20th-century philosophers. You all have heard the names: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Wittgenstein and so on.
What do they have in common? Next to their European heritage, they are connected by the fact that they are all white men who have lived in imperialist societies. Subsequently, their work is coloured by this one single perspective – the perspective of the colonizers of the globe. Much of their thinking is informed by their position in their respective society but also by the status of their society that viewed itself as superior to others. Both of these aspects are important, but the decolonization movement is particularly interested in addressing the second aspect.
This perspective does not only affect European universities but has travelled to all corners of the world via the colonization campaigns of the Europeans in the last 500 years. This male, white, European, and often racist perspective has established itself as the dominant position in all social sciences. It has replaced indigenous knowledge of other places and leaves no room for views of women, people of color, non-Westerners or other marginalized groups. It has firmly established the dominance of Western knowledge as universal and generally valid.
But why does this matter so much? It is not only a question of justice and equality – even though that is also very important. But we can see that many of the world’s largest problems are rooted in still present colonial thinking that divides people into groups of different worth. Even if we do not consciously think in these terms anymore, we cannot deny that it is a subconsciously part of our identity.
The war in Ukraine is the most current example. We have heard about the imperialist reasons for the re-establishment of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union as one of the main drivers for Russian aggression. However, less attention has been paid to the colonialist identity of the Russian people. Russia was created via imperialist activities right from the start, which was also visible throughout its Soviet time. This identity shaping factor created by being a century-old imperialist power explains the civilizational self-understanding that assigns superiority to Slavic Russians over other ethnic groups and the feeling of superiority over the Ukrainian people. I believe that this is where we can find an answer to the terrible crimes committed on Ukrainian soil but also the susceptibility or proneness of Russian people to buy into the propaganda.
It has also become apparent that the West’s identity is also affected by its colonial history. I am reminded of the CBS reporter who stated that it is hard to imagine that this war happens in a “relatively civilized” country like Ukraine – while simultaneously showing the feeling of superiority over Ukraine but also delineating it from “even less civilized” countries. It is clear that large parts of the Europeans have this thinking ingrained.
Other problems are also clearly rooted in historical colonialism and today’s colonialist practices. We could look here at global inequality levels but probably most importantly at the Climate Crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the highest authority in climate change research, has just announced its newest report, which clearly points out the effects of colonialism on today’s vulnerabilities of the ecosystem and people to the changing climate. They state that the Climate Crisis is “rooted in the exploitation and degradation of the planet, peoples, and cultures, which are the foundational principles of colonialism”. We need to acknowledge the historical patterns of this exploitation to avoid continuing these practices and to find adequate solutions. This is particularly important as we see that the Western approaches to dealing with this crisis are ineffective. Suddenly, we find ourselves seeking knowledges that have been suppressed and displaced through the colonialist practices.
De-colonizing the university asks us to critically question the knowledge on which our discipline and theories are based. I would like to carefully note that this devalues all our knowledge and its roots. Still, we need to critically engage with our history and the history of our disciplines and create more inclusive curriculums that actively feature other voices. Hopefully, this will slowly lead to a more de-colonized society that is just and able to deal with today's problems and avoid similar ones in the future.