Democracy is under siege globally, including among our colleges and institutions of higher learning. Cultivating an informed citizenry, fostering civil discourse and encouraging the free exchange of ideas are hallmarks of higher education. But academia has been colonized by Western thoughts. If ever there was a need for academics to stand up and show the best of what higher education can be, the time is now. Just like the coronavirus that was ignored at the beginning of the pandemic, we ignore this particular virus that infects our minds at our own peril.
Intellectual democracy is a myth in higher education. It’s time to decolonize academia.
It is a common belief that higher education values ideological diversity and supposedly despises echo chambers of conformist intellectual bubbles considered the nemesis of critical thinking. In reality, however, academia is shackled and colonized by the Western hegemony. So much so that all over the world western philosophies are the primary source of the knowledge-making process.
These ironclad traditions extend to both the dominant ontology and epistemology, and in fact, propagate the value that there is only one way of producing knowledge – the Western way. What is seemingly innocuous, but is so perilous about this predicament is that academics, including this essay’s authors, are steeped deep in these traditions. Maybe it’s because we don’t know another way or a better way. Perhaps it’s because our paychecks are tied to the issue. But, we have a hard time recognizing and calling out oppressive practices.
As academics of color ourselves with non-Western thoughts guiding our personal lives and with 15-year careers teaching graduate, remedial and general education classes, we have learned that diversity and inclusion in higher education has simply come to mean black and brown scholars upholding the dominant ideals that inform the academe.
True diversity does not mean diverse groups of scholars and academics upholding dominant ideas, but rather diverse groups of intellectuals, teachers and scholars conducting their academic lives using methods and ideologies grounded in the culture and ethos.
In general, institutions of higher learning are expected to meet three crucial, interrelated missions: Education, the generation of new knowledge, and engagement with society or “the community.” These are also the reasons why we need an immediate analysis of higher education and its role in the demise of democracy.
Right now, all the theoretical frameworks that are taught in institutes of higher education are based on Western thoughts. For example, the practice of looking at the world in binary terms or focusing on individualism are hallmarks of the Western way of thinking. In reality, the world is much more complex and relational. Unfortunately, Eastern philosophy, Afrocentric philosophy or any other non-Western systems of thought which view the world differently are excluded in academia and considered inferior. As a result, the students are trained in only one limited way of critical thinking and knowledge making. We need to provide our students with an education that is truly global. This includes acknowledging origin and discovery narratives other than those proffered by self-serving European pseudo-histories.
The generation of new knowledge in academia is limited by the dominance of Western ideologies grounded in “objective” science. This is evidenced by the retention, tenure and promotion processes that focus on the scientific enterprise as the primary method of making new knowledge and peer-reviewed publications as the most important way of disseminating such knowledge. This is also seen in faculty hiring practices that requires a doctorate degree as a required qualification. Such policies and practices privilege certain voices in the knowledge-making process over others. Any non-hegemonic sources of knowledge such as professional and community experiences are considered less than valid. This runs counter to this second mission since by definition, new knowledge needs to be created from new sources. The record-breaking speed of Covid-19 vaccine research has proven decisively that traditional peer-review is not the only way to generate socially relevant knowledge. In order for our students to be trained to think creatively and urgently by integrating various sources of knowledge, academia must first acknowledge that instead of being at the forefront of change, it has become complicit in reifying power structures in society through its process of selecting and retaining the makers of knowledge. It is only after this reckoning can academia have any hope of becoming a transformative force.
In addition, to the limitation of the knowledge -making process, the enforcement, through the grading process, of standard English as the only acceptable academic and professional form of the English language limits the educational opportunities of all students who, by no fault of their own, are not proximal to white culture and its language standard. Other forms of English receive failing grades from the education system despite the fact that in day to day life fluency in non-standard forms of English is necessary to relate to people and to do business in America. English teachers need a more diverse education in the English language so that they can grade students without cultural bias and so that they can teach literature that reflects the many ways that America’s most common tongue is actually used.
Finally, engagement with society is not prioritized. The time has come for community-engaged, public-facing research to be valued as a valid way of addressing social problems.
Contrary to academia’s superiority complex as holder of all knowledge, solutions to social problems must include collaboration with community partners since they have the “expert” knowledge of being in the frontline or being a part of the community. However, in the current academic belief system, the knowledge-base of community partners are often considered less than an academic’s experience. A case in point is that one of the authors was denied funding from a reputed funding source on the grounds that her research team did not have enough “scientific experts” since she was engaging in a Community-Based Participatory Action Research which sees academics and community stakeholders as equals in the research process and and her research partner was a community-based organization.
Indeed, if democracy is to have a future, we have to start with the decolonization of academe.
Academia must become a democratic space. Academics can be and should be transformative figures on the American scene. With that it mind we demand the following:
A) Decolonize higher education by including a curriculum that teaches about epistemology other than the Western one.
B) Change hiring and retention and promotion processes to include professional and community knowledge as valid forms of expertise.
C) Include oped and other public voices projects as equally crucial ways of disseminating knowledge as peer reviewed journals
Higher education must embrace a wide variety of teaching methods, research approaches, and dissemination avenues. We need to engage popular culture and community partners not disregard them. We need to produce public intellectuals, not discourage them.
Soma Sen is a Professor in the School of Social Work at San José State University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.
Keenan Norris is an assistant professor of English at San Jose State University, author of the novel “Brother and the Dancer,” and Public Voices Fellows with The OpEd Project.