​Afrocentric science can be liberatory

One of the key demands of the student protests is the need for universities to transform the curriculum and provide decolonised education.

There are many facets to this issue of a decolonised, quality education and one of these is how a sense of history would help to restore some confidence in our students — that Africa had made a huge contribution to this universal scientific knowledge.

This would probably mitigate how alienating university classrooms are for black students.

I would like to begin by determining whether there is any worth in learning this science knowledge and why, by making it appear mostly Eurocentric and depriving it of a historical perspective, universities have been complicit in driving an ideological and political agenda.

Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, identified three benefits that a society could derive from scientific knowledge as technical, practical and emancipatory.

The technical aspects of know-ledge help society to control and predict the environment in such a way as to exploit it to create human conveniences. It refers mostly to the use of science knowledge and natural resources to develop products and services (the economic aspect) that ease human existence.

The practical interests we have relate to the need for science knowledge to help us develop a cohesive and functional society that is stable and productive. His basic argument is that, once a society becomes unstable and characterised by violence and unrest, such a societal failure results from interactions that are mostly not driven by science knowledge or where science knowledge has been deliberately distorted or ignored.

The emancipatory aspects of knowledge refer to what students and society can legitimately get from education to free themselves from ignorance, dogmatism, bigotry and native selfishness. Emancipatory knowledge gives students and society access to the means for critical understanding of complex issues and the means to explore new possibilities.

This is one aspect of science knowledge that has generally been eschewed and ignored in university education, especially access to the exploration of new possibilities, which speak to the development of students and general society’s creative problem-solving and innovative abilities.

Our university education has thus over-accentuated the technical aspects of knowledge (preparation for formal employment through skills and competencies development) and underemphasised the emancipatory aspects of science knowledge (exploration of new things).

This is where quality in university education is put to the test and where universities become complicit in driving a neoliberal economic and political ideology narrowly focused on developing employable graduates and less on developing students who can devise new or improved things.

Our universities are thus strong in developing reproductive rather than productive thinkers (creators and innovators) especially at undergraduate levels and thus have become the main drivers of the epistemology of mimesis — replication of what is already known to the discipline but mostly unknown to students.

There are almost always no expectations in disciplines that students could contribute to already known knowledge by sensing its limits in real contexts. Learning becomes distant from real-life students’ experience and distances them from their heritage and self-pride.

This way, learning becomes the way to control and predict students’ behaviour to a point where universities become impotent when students act outside these expected behavioural precepts.

Yet it is when students act outside of these parameters of knowing and predictability that real learning occurs — when uncertainty and unpredictability are constant companions.

As one social commentator said: “If it is certain then somebody else had already done it.” This control and predictability over students’ behaviour by universities also explains why universities responded so violently to the legitimate demands of students. Universities are not geared to deal with uncertainty and unpredictability.

Few universities read student protests correctly and few sought to find out what Habermas discovered in the 1970s about students’ protests in the search for the higher design of university models ranging from their funding and visions to their strategies and curriculum provisioning.

Habermas also attacked students’ violent protests as self-delusory and pernicious but accentuated their search for an improved university model that emancipates students instead of condemning them to mundane workplace activities and societal assemblies bereft of active agency and critical engagement.

A sense of history has generally been ignored in science and engineering education. For instance, the discovery of the fundamental laws of physics did not occur during Isaac Newton’s time as is popular belief in physics and general society.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina), an Arabian, recognised that objects remained at rest or moved at a constant speed in a straight line until an external, unbalanced force was introduced to change their course.

This was in the 10th century, almost 600 years before the birth of Newton, during the golden years of Arabian civilisation and during the time when Europe was experiencing high levels of inferiority. This historical omission was entrenched when Newton named these laws of motion under his name.

Another significant omission in our education is about the origins of chemistry. Chemistry is derived from the word khemeia meaning black and khemeia has generally been associated with Egypt, which is where chemistry originated, when Egyptians tried various chemical reactions to try to mummify bodies.

This knowledge of chemistry was adopted in Europe many years later for the sole purpose of trying to produce gold by chemical means — a project that failed dismally. Europe, however, played a significant role in moving chemistry from alchemy to objective science.

There are many other examples of knowledge that was produced in Africa, the Middle East and other places that has been claimed as European knowledge and packaged ideologically to undermine the contribution of others to science know-ledge and drive the myth that most science knowledge derives from Europe.

In engineering and mathematics, for instance, there is rarely a mention of Imhotep, an architect, engineer and physician who lived in Egypt in the 7th century and who shaped these fields of science. Imhotep is one of the trailblazers in using science discoveries to produce human conveniences in the form of aesthetic and architectural taste, which is a definition of engineering whose core is to come up with new things that improve human life.

This means the core of engineering education is access to the means of exploring new possibilities and devising new or improved things, which highlight the value of creativity and innovation, even in undergraduate university studies.

It is also rarely mentioned that Pythagoras, a European, studied Egyptian pyramids for almost 22 years to come up with the Pythagorean theorem in mathematics and spent time learning in Egypt, India and other Middle Eastern areas.

The theorem named after Pythagoras was discovered in Egypt long before he arrived there. The Rhynd Papyrus, dating back to 1650 BCE, provides evidence of the influence and sophistication of Egyptian mathematics in accounting, architecture and many other areas long before the Greeks, who are credited with developing mathematics. The Rhynd Papyrus contains 84 mathematical problems that include division, multiplication, addition, fractions, square roots and quadratic equations arranged in terms of arithmetic, algebra and geometry.

In theology, the religion formed in the 6th century BCE called Zoroastrianism introduced concepts such as heaven and hell, judgment day and a holy path upon which Judaism, Islam and Christianity were to be founded and has literally been wiped out. It originated in the Middle East.

The restoration of the ­historical trajectory of science knowledge in our curriculum would probably make a significant contribution in making our students appreciate and critically engage with knowledge rather than becoming its passive recipients.

This would also compel more systematic investigation of knowledge and its origins, which could lead to students’ active agency in ­forming and becoming educated beyond just focusing on turning them into workers.

University education is more than that. It has to become emancipatory and contribute to the democratic project of enhancing interaction through active engagement and critical debate. This would include debating the meanings and origins of science knowledge so that the notions of a decolonised education become clearer.

Such university education would have to include access to exploring new possibilities once the critical understanding of complex aspects of science knowledge (origins, trajectories, current strengths and weaknesses) have been accessed beyond just this trite scientific knowledge, and its neutral and unproblematic transmission and absorption, as is the case in most undergraduate studies in our universities.

The call for quality, decolonised university education is the call to search for higher designs of our university education and curriculum. It is not a call to reject any form of science knowledge but to engage with it critically and creatively contribute to it as myths are debunked by a strong sense of history.

The call is legitimate and should not be quashed by police force.

Universities should embrace newness when our familiar milieu is made strange by student protests and remember TS Eliot’s wise counsel: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

This, in essence, means the defeat of ignorance, dogmatism and bigotry in a place we can all call a scholarly home.

Teboho Pitso has a PhD in engineering education from the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the senior project manager for learner support at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Vaal University of Technology. These are his own views.


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