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'Academic imperialism is self-perpetuating'

CK Raju argues that the belief that Western education is needed for science and that Western endorsement is the best test of scientific truth and expertise is a recipe to ensure perpetual inferiority of the non-Western world and make the technology gap permanent.


THE point about academic imperialism is not just to talk about it, but to end it.

Talking about it is useful only in so far as it helps to understand the key causes and remedies. Here is a summary of both, and a proposal for the critical first step.

Western education has been promoted on the grounds that it would help to 'catch up with the West' in science and technology and thus obtain parity with the West in hard power. This belief makes the non-West imitate the West.

On the other hand, today, a scientific innovation is not treated as credible until it has been endorsed by the West [e.g., published in a 'prestigious' (meaning Western) journal]; this practice ensures that the non-West can never out-innovate or catch up with the West in science, for the West is always the first to know about any major innovations, well before they become public.

The two beliefs combined (that Western education is needed for science, and that Western endorsement is the best test of scientific truth and expertise) are thus actually a recipe to ensure perpetual inferiority of the non-West, and to make the technology gap permanent, with the non-West always following in the footsteps of the West, but trailing behind, and never able to catch up.

For example, Western education has been encouraged in India for nearly two centuries, but India could not achieve technological parity with the West in all these years - even its much-vaunted space programme, for instance, is still more than 40 years behind the West. (India just sent an unmanned mission to the moon. But the fact is that the US landed a man on the moon over 40 years ago, around which time China, too, had acquired ICBM technology.) The cryogenic rocket technology used in India poses no military threat to the West. The West is happy to have a billion people following it at such a safe technological distance.

Unlike ordinary imperialism, in Iraq or Afghanistan, say, which is resisted and drains the imperialist, academic imperialism is self-perpetuating. Common people, too, seek Western education for the economic benefits it might entail at the individual level, through proximity to the rulers. Thus, they acquire the attitudes and values the West wants them to have. This soft power of the West is a stronger basis for imperialism than its hard power which is otherwise vulnerable.

Thus, the technology gap between West and non-West is often very slender. Atomic bombs, for example, are easy to build. A country like Iran could easily do that, within a short time, if it were allowed to do so, without external interference. And if political pressure is the real means by which the technology gap is maintained, then how can that gap ever be overcome by imitating the West? On the other hand, Russia still has a whole lot of nuclear bombs and delivery missiles. But they are no longer seen as a major threat, after the Soviet Union succumbed to Western soft power and disintegrated without a blow.

Thus, the real strength of imperialism is soft power, not hard power. The West needs soft power to cement the vulnerabilities in its hard power. Imitating the West only enhances its soft power, without diminishing its hard power (which is based on the technology gap).

The present-day soft power of the West originated during colonialism. Unlike ordinary military conquests, colonialism involved a cultural conquest, through a conquest of the mind. In India, the Britishers themselves wondered how a handful of people from a small nation coming from so far overseas could control so vast a population. Indoctrination through the colonial education system played a key role in this cultural imperialism. The aim of colonial education was to create a Western-educated elite class of Indians who would be loyal to the British and help them to rule the masses. This loyalty was ensured by the education system which implanted the desired attitudes and values, and also instilled an unshakeable belief in Western superiority (and Indian inferiority). This is not exactly the way dogs and other animals are trained to obey their masters without a stick, but there is a similarity.

This colonial system of education could be initiated because the gullible Indian elite (and the colonised, generally) had already swallowed the claim of Western superiority. In the early 19th century, there was no visible technology gap between West and non-West: the Battle of Plassey was not won by any technological superiority. Nevertheless it was argued that the West must be imitated since it was superior. That claim of superiority rested on the bad history that science is of Western origin and is thus practically owned by the West, which is hence intrinsically superior. This bad history was further reinforced by bad philosophy which claimed that Western ways of doing mathematics and science are universal, and other ways of doing them are worthless or inferior. As the owner-originator of universal knowledge, the West claimed the right to rule the world. The sole virtue of others lay in how well they could imitate the West.

This understanding of the origin of Western soft power suggests a step-by-step process to dismantle it. The process must start by correcting history, modifying philosophy, and revitalising education. Eventually, this process must be extended to change the present-day methods of validating science.

The first step is to undo the falsehoods of Western history of science. Far too many people incorrectly think this can be done just by highlighting some scientific contributions of the non-West. Certainly, it is important to highlight the contribution of the non-West, but that, by itself, is not enough, and past attempts to do so have repeatedly failed to change 'mainstream' history of science. For example, it has been known for at least the last 60 years that Copernicus, a mere priest, only translated the works of Ibn Shatir and Nasiruddin Tusi (of Maragha) from their (Byzantine) Greek versions to Latin. Yet the mass of people still believe Copernicus was a revolutionary scientist. Most Western historians of science go on talking about the 'Copernican revolution', pretending as if nothing happened. People have been indoctrinated to believe that any attempt to correct Western history is necessarily chauvinistic. This latter belief has been greatly helped along by the more extreme elements in the non-West who have often made wild claims. In any case, such information is often just ignored by the West.

Thus, the right thing to do is, first, to expose the falsehoods of Western history. Present-day academic imperialism is based on the formula 'trust the West'. This formula is the key to the Western indoctrination and propaganda so critical to ordinary imperialism. Western propaganda would fail without such trust. To negate that propaganda, it is important to demonstrate that this trust in the West is misplaced.

Hence, also, it is important to demonstrate that the deliberate falsehoods of Western history of science are not limited to isolated instances in the past; those falsehoods are widespread and systemic, and extend into the present. This can be demonstrated by exposing also contemporary Western icons at the highest level, such as Einstein. Hence, I have started the series of books 'False Gods of Science?', a summary account of which is in my book Is Science Western in Origin?.

While exposure of Western falsehoods is necessary, it is not sufficient. The West has lived off the most absurd lies for so long that it has developed a defence mechanism against such exposures, and tries to maintain those lies by inventing further lies, for example about the persona of those who expose its lies. A number of Western historians see it as their job to promote and maintain falsehoods in history. So, the exposure of Western falsehoods needs to be propagated as vigorously as possible. While individuals may uncover the falsehoods of history, the propagation of such exposure has to be a collective effort. Otherwise it is easy to isolate and paint the individual as a deviant or a chauvinist.

The second step is to understand and undo the way bad philosophy has been used to support false history. For example, it has been claimed that the Western way of doing mathematics is the only right way, and must be imitated. This 'philosophical' demand to imitate the West has a retrospective effect on the history of ideas, for it allows an easy way to dismiss non-Western contributions as insignificant, since non-imitative. (For example, the pre-Newtonian Indian calculus is today dismissed as 'pre-calculus', just because it does not imitate the present Western way of 'limits'.) Moreover, this demand for imitativeness allows 'science' itself to be used as a key weapon to run down beliefs in other cultures. A pet argument of Christian missionaries was that Hindus and Muslims and all non-Christians, in general, were superstitious, unlike Christians who were rational.1

More to the point is the way Western-educated people, even those with the best intentions, have swallowed this belief. The Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, for example, is today arguing that scientific development was arrested in Islam due to al Ghazali. As I have commented,2 a curious aspect of Hoodbhoy's claim is that what Hoodbhoy calls 'the key premises underlying science' are actually the key premises underlying post-Crusade Christian theology, which the church found it politically convenient to adopt during the Crusades. Those theological beliefs got mixed up with mathematics, science, and its philosophy in the West. In fact, all those premises can be safely denied, and this de-theologisation leads to a better mathematics and science, and a better philosophy of science, as I have shown. In any case, the subterranean message underlying the missionary position is to adopt Western (indeed post-Crusade) values suited to the imperialist. The whole issue is a bit complex, and as I have discussed it extensively elsewhere,3 I will not enter into this issue (of science as a source of imperial values) here, and will only indicate why it is better to teach de-theologised mathematics.

The third step, and a key step, against academic imperialism is to dismantle the colonial education system which indoctrinates people. The need to decolonise education has so far been understood only in the context of political history and social sciences. In 'hard' sciences, imitation of the West remains the norm. So it is here that it is most important to decolonise education, and demonstrate alternatives.

Since mathematics is at the root of science, it is a good idea to begin by decolonising math education. Because imitation of the West has been painted as 'progressive' since colonial times, it is important to demonstrate that decolonising mathematics education is not a 'regressive' step, but leads instead to gain of practical value, with the only loss being that of Western indoctrination.

A key aspect of that indoctrination is to implant the belief in the conflicting claims that (a) 'mathematics is universal', but that (b) 'mathematics began with the Greeks' and other cultures had no real clue as to the right way to do math. Now, it is elementary common sense that if (a) is true, and mathematics is indeed universal, then (b) must be false, for mathematics should have sprung up the same in all places! So, it is remarkable how many people who know neither mathematics nor its history or philosophy adhere to both these claims, contrary to common sense. Such contradictory convictions based on ignorance are the hallmark of superstition and indoctrination. In fact, both the beliefs (a) and (b) began during the Crusades as beliefs politically convenient to the church.

The solution, thus, is to break such Western superstitions by means of practical pedagogical demonstrations. I believe all these elements (a new history, a new philosophy, and a new pedagogy, with a resulting gain of practical value) are captured in my five-day course on calculus without limits. The basic point is that math teaching is difficult today because theology got mixed up with this math in the West. Therefore, de-theologising math also makes it very easy to teach.

Such demonstrations need to be replicated widely, advertised, and absorbed into the 'mainstream' educational system, to destroy the superstition implanted and encouraged by the colonial education system, that there is no alternative to imitating the West. In fact, such demonstrations will create a major dilemma for the West. Either it must lag behind in the area of math education, which it today recognises (as in the latest Obama budget) as a key area of concern in pedagogy, or it must abandon its cherished theological beliefs - beliefs on which much post-Crusade Western philosophy is based. This latter course will not be easy, so the non-West also has a comparative advantage here.

The course on calculus without limits is only a first step to decolonising education in hard science. (That first step is often the most difficult.) Once the first step is taken it will be readily seen that other similar changes are possible, for example, in the case of geometry and algebra. Other sciences such as physics and biology are also coloured by Western doctrinal content which is of negative practical value, and it is important to demonstrate the entry of theology into these hard sciences, at least in the obvious cases, such as the work of Newton or Stephen Hawking, and to separate the practical value of these sciences from their doctrinal content.

The fourth and the last step is to dismantle the Western academic power structure at the level of higher education and research, for this exerts continuous pressure on school and undergraduate pedagogy. The politics of information here is more complex, and, unlike the first three steps, it might be better to do this more gradually.

Certain steps can be taken in this direction right away. Many people, even in the West, find stifling the existing power structure used to control journal publications. Although blind peer review is portrayed as a system of quality control, it is open to much misuse, like Roman Catholic confessionals, and has been rightly described as pre-censorship. Systems like the arXiv which provide an alternative way to disseminate knowledge have long been in place. Even these alternative systems have been challenged as too restrictive, leading to the formation of more recent alternatives such as viXra.

Quality control, especially in a digital age (where there is little cost associated with publication), should ideally take the form of post-publication public debate. Such debates can be encouraged, for example, by inviting comments by referees (and rejoinders by authors), within a system like viXra. The referees would not be spending any more time (than in the old system, if they were serious) but the quality of debate would improve. Moreover, the fact is that with novel ideas, referees tend to err quite often, and in this system, there would be room to correct such errors. Setting up such a system is a simple matter which sovereign states (and even universities and smaller institutions) can easily implement. Governments must actively encourage this change.

Side by side, the hold of commercial journal publishers in science, such as Macmillan, Springer, Elsevier etc., needs to be broken. Why should scientific information produced by public-funded research be turned into the private property of these publishers through copyright? If those publishers are charging only to meet operational costs, why should they hide the extent of profits they make in the process? Why should government agencies encourage the superstition that the prestige of a scientist is best decided by publications in such commercial journals? Why should public-funded scientists be allowed to work for free for these commercial journals as referees? All these sops and subsidies need to be withdrawn.

Commercial publishers of science journals are free to exist. But let them do so on their own, or perish. These journal publishers are no longer needed to disseminate information, which can be quickly and efficiently distributed digitally. In particular, copyright laws should be amended to enforce free public access for all public-funded research articles which are published even in commercial journals. At worst, such journals may be allowed a time lag of not more than one to three months before allowing full public access.

As with history of science, such alternative measures must be accompanied by exposure of the falsehoods underlying the present system of Western endorsement. One such system of endorsement is fellowship of a Western society. This often depends upon proximity to some prominent member of that society, but is indiscriminately interpreted as an index of scientific achievement. Since such endorsements give people power in their own country, they can also be cynically exploited to manipulate scientific decision-making in these countries. Let someone first examine cases of some scientists who have been endorsed by the West, and see of what practical value their scientific work was to their societies across their lifetime. We also need to examine who benefited from their recommendations when these scientists acted on government committees. Mashelkar and Narlikar, for example, would be good cases for such investigation in India.

The ultimate Western endorsement is the Nobel Prize, and the politics of that endorsement is widely recognised in the case of the peace, literature and economics prizes. Those endorsements are believed to be weightier in the hard sciences, although very similar processes operate also in those cases. However, as far as I know, there has never been any non-Western attempt to study those processes. Such a study might at least lead to the realisation that Western endorsement ought not to be the key to scientific achievement, and alternative prizes instituted elsewhere may then look for more transparent means of decision-making.

Another common system of endorsement is the so-called 'impact parameter', related to the 'ranking' of a journal. This is just another seemingly objective way to say that mere peer review is inadequate, unless the peers are Westerners who count (or their affiliates). A detailed discussion of this would be out of place here, but two points are in order. For a commercial journal such an index (journal ranking) makes sense, for the publishers are concerned only with its consumers, who are scientists. This also makes journals themselves the focus of scientific research - which obviously suits those commercial publishers. However, the citation index is at best a biased measure of social popularity in the West - measuring this simple number is what all the big talk about the 'scientific method' has been ultimately reduced to in practice! Publication in these 'high-impact' journals depends upon endorsements by referees and editorial boards predominantly from the West, so social networking is critically important in that as well. These journals will avoid non-Western knowledge, for example. In this way, Western endorsement is passed off as the sole index of scientific virtue. In fact, if the concern is with practical value, the validity of a scientific theory must be decided differently, irrespective of its social popularity. Also the theory has to be judged by its impact on the society at large (and not just consumers of journals) over a longish time period. New ideas often involve complexities which the scientific community takes a long time to grasp.

Many further steps are possible. For example, it is desirable that international journals and conferences and societies should have internationally representative selection committees. This rarely happens today. However, I do not think sovereign states should try to enforce this, at least not right away. Rather, discussions about this, in the context of the ethics of science, need to be encouraged.

The timing and sequence of the steps is important. If Western history and philosophy of science are not first (and continuously) challenged, there will be resistance to changes in the educational system. And until the education system is changed, and Western indoctrination in elementary science education is eliminated, those who grow up with it will resist any changes at the level of higher education and research.                    

The above is extracted from CK Raju's book Ending Academic Imperialism: A Beginning (Multiversity and Citizens International, 2011).

Endnotes

1.    I will not here go into the interesting history of this missionary position, which dates back to the Crusades; see, however, my response to a recent use of this argument by the Pope against Muslims, in CK Raju, 'Benedict's Maledicts', ZNet: http://www.zcommunications.org/benedicts-maledicts-by-c-k-raju. (Accessed on 19 March 2011.) Reprinted in Indian Journal of Secularism, 10(3) (2006), 79-90.

2.    The comment is reproduced in 'Islam and Science: a response to Pervez Hoodbhoy', December  2009, http://ckraju.net/blog/?p=40.

3.    CK Raju, The Eleven Pictures of Time, Sage, 2003.

*Third World Resurgence No. 266/267, October/November 2012, pp 56-59


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