Decolonising education

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - August 30, 2015

In the spirit of Merdeka, which will be celebrated tomorrow, there is no better time to discuss the relevance of the recently released statement from the International Conference on Decolonisation and Leadership Issues in University Education held on Nottingham University Malaysia Campus.

This is the third in a series of events which aims to improve diversity of education in an increasingly homogenous, if colonised, world of learning. Given the intent to implement “transformation” in universities under the Malaysia Education Blueprint (2015-2025), the statement can provide better context and perspectives in considering the ultimate in education transformation in the country.

The statement recognises that the modern (read Western) knowledge system (science, mathematics, social sciences) has moved like a juggernaut across the educational environments in the rest of the world – often imposed, but sometimes even welcomed for the benefits perceived to be gained from adopting it.

In contrast, hundreds of knowledge system, which are equally valid and provide sustainable livelihoods in societies outside the West for hundreds of years, have been summarily ignored, marginalised and often blindly repudiated by the modern university system as it based itself on the curricula that evolved and was subsequently developed in the Western world.

Though this modern knowledge system brings in seemingly amazing results, we now recognise it also carries the seeds of major disruption of ecosystems of the planet.

The gains have been short-term. This challenge to planetary survival has had a backwater effect on people’s perceptions of the Western knowledge system. Serious thinkers – starting from Mahatma Ghandi – have been calling for a fundamental rethink.

The decolonisation agenda concluded that a major imbalance has developed between the knowledge system associated with Western societies and those that continue to survive among other societies that may not necessarily like being identified as Western or which desire strongly to maintain their separate and unique identities. The conference discussion inevitably focused on the restoration of balance.

It sought a new consensus among educators, professors, lecturers, administrators, students, policy makers and governments that the restoration of balance among various valid systems of knowledge may be considered a significant goal in the making of educational policies.

All things considered, participants agreed it may never be wise to place all of humanity’s hopes in one basket, to have only one perception of a problem, and deprive emerging generations of the wisdom of societies that has created a fertile environment for sustainable living over centuries.

The seeds of this planet’s survival need to be sought in these systems of knowledge as they have indeed displayed persistently and consistently their ability to survive without gross, unbalanced and unacceptably huge ecological footprints that threaten everyone.

Merely conceding or agreeing on this, however, will not instantly light pathways that need to be necessarily adopted.