Undoing the epistemic alienation

Oliur Sun | Published: 17:47, Nov 16,2017


‘SAPRE Aude (Dare to Know)’— Immanuel Kant’s slogan (borrowed from Homer) for European enlightenment marked the break from the domination of the church and created space for the ‘public use of a man’s reason’. An enlightened man who thinks for oneself and is free from one’s self-incurred tutelage is Kant’s vision entitled secularisation and freedom of knowledge or more specifically freedom of thinking that produces knowledge. This thinking undoubtedly lies in an individual but where do they practise their reason? The university as an alternate for the churches became prominent in this respect. It allowed an alternate space to practise thinking free from pre-assumptions unlike churches which often would be restrictive in terms of the use of ‘reason’ and subversive knowledge.

During the colonial period, this form of university was established in the Indian subcontinent in a rather decontexualised form and merely as an educational institution much further from Kant’s vision of enlightenment. As a result, university in the European sense as an institution was imported in the subcontinent devoid of its essence both in terms of its institutional and intellectual orientation. Because of the colonial legacy the current formation of university brings us to several questions — questions, whose answers are not unknown to us anymore, yet remain unattended. What was the purpose behind this establishment? And more importantly what did this establishment of the universities in the colonial period really do?

To repress the colonised people epistemologically or, to produce servants for the British Colonial Government — are the two answers that immediately come to our mind as we attempt to engage with the first question. However, the second question requires a lengthier engagement of thought as many would appreciate the university’s infrastructural formation and its corresponding mechanism to be a well-functional ‘educational’ institution which we, the colonised, failed to fathom. Undoubtedly, the universities established during the colonial period had its institutional effects. However, to appreciate its ‘institutionality’ by the merit of the people’s ‘un-institutionality’ (i.e. our failure to realise, participate and proceed in an institution) invokes the civilised and savage dichotomy as far as the relation between the coloniser and the colonised is concerned. If the essence of the European university is missing in its import in the colony, it is precisely because of its colonial interests and intentions. And if we fail to proceed in its institutionaility that is also because of the same colonial interest as it resists the colonised, as a thinking and ‘rational’ being who can practise their ‘own reason’, both as an institution that orients itself in ‘educating’ the colonised according to the demands of the East India company and also in its mission of gathering knowledge about the colonised as ‘irrational’ and only ‘spiritual’ subjects so as to colonise their history of knowledge itself and to gain authority to talk about and consequently dominate the colonised.

But what this colonial institution essentially (essential for its colonial power) does is that it disrupts. The colonial university disrupts the epistemological advancement of the colonised through oral and written discourses, through its institutional claim to produce, preserve and circulate the knowledge of the land. It marginalised the knowledge tradition of the particular land. Although, in the context of orientalism, the colonial university’s knowledge production had a particular character which Said pointed out as ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’. Apart from its orientalist engagement of knowledge, the colonial universities such as Madras and Decca University largely remained as ‘training centres’ to orient the colonised with the British mode of education. Thanks to Macaulay’s Minutes on Indian Education!

From 1757 to 2017, even after 260 years of British colonisation, the university’s formation largely remains the same in terms of its institutional function and academic character. Even though, the 1973 act for the public universities of Bangladesh tried to reform the university’s generational hegemony by providing autonomy and freedom of knowledge production. However, this act never had a decolonising mission as such for the universities, it had a potential to ultimately subvert the coloniality of public universities. But as ‘the victim might turn into a potential victimiser’, the public universities in the independent Bangladesh through Higher Education Quality Enhancement Projects and University Grants Commission’s slowly implementing master plan opened the university to blatant privatisation and neo-imperial hegemony in the academic sphere. In the name of self-governance, the plan leaves room for the direct orchestration of knowledge production by the corporate bourgeoisie and imperial powers. In the name of becoming financially self-reliant through running different commercially motivated evening programmes, the roles and responsibilities of state is deduced, and direct interventions of non state actors such as World Bank is encouraged. The HEQEP project is a World Bank funded project and WB in its official website describe the project in an explicitly patronising voice:

The main objective of the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project for Bangladesh is to improve the quality and relevance of the teaching and research environment in higher education institutions through encouraging both innovation and accountability within universities and by enhancing the technical and institutional capacity of the higher education sector.

The colonial thrust to make our tertiary education a project of technical centres is evident here. Therefore, the UGC’s masterplan is aiming at reproducing and reinforcing the colonial legacy of the university. The master plan contradicts the very Kantian idea of a university as an institution that dedicates itself in building the epistemological basis of a land — a base grounded on the historical development of knowledge starting from the ancient times and reconnecting with the epistemological tradition of the Nalanda or Somapura mahavihara or universities. Needless to say that this reconnecting process would not only confront the European idea of university and knowledge, but also engage knowledge institutionally as ‘pramana’ with its ten categories, not merely as linear and categorical ‘reason’. At the same time, the separation of the university from a colonial training institute or a privatised business oriented institution would create space for a knowledge-oriented institution dedicated to the public. This demarcation, more importantly, would create space to approach knowledge, not as a mere act of knowing by means of reason, but as an organic entity that cognitively shapes an individual, as well as a whole population.

This particular epistemological tradition practised, produced and preserved in the subversive formation of the university would not remain frozen in intellectuality or arrested in academic certainty. It would be the knowledge in the Foucauldian sense — ‘knowledge for cutting’. The university would not be oblivious of its colonial (as well as Kantian) legacy and the epistemic violence it caused to the colonised people’s collective intellectual history. It would confront by way of engaging with the colonially marginalised, consequently alienated episteme by thinking independently on one’s own. In other words, by undoing the epistemic alienation through a decolonising process to build a university that does not suppress but subvert its very own generative coloniality and create space for an epistemic reconnection — a dealientation with the forgotten, distorted and repressed past that invokes a decolonised present, a decolonised university of/for the public.


Oliur Sun is a non-philosopher currently studying Literatures and Cultural Studies at Jahangirnagar University.

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