The Darker Side of Higher Education: The Atlantic Economy, Epistemic Imperialism, and the Decolonial Option (a research project)

This blog has been dormant for a while, waiting for me to re-imagine my social media profile.  But I have been encouraged by a range of new readers to revive the blog, even if only temporarily.  I am in process of moving to Roskilde University to work with Eva Bendix Petersen.  This is an exciting opportunity for me.  Roskilde will be my academic domicile and it is because of this imminent move that I have been lax in keeping up with social media. For this post, I have chosen to share a substantial intellectual project that I am beginning.  This project builds on previous explorations presented at the Sociological Association of Ireland conference in 2017.  The broad project is to imagine higher education otherwise. The text below will be developed further over the coming months.


The Darker Side of Higher Education – a project

Everywhere around us we hear of the ‘crisis’ of higher education.  The fact that the ‘crisis’ is articulated through a generalised object: higher education and global university rankings are tabulated in terms of atomised institutions rather than national systems, provides a glimpse into an underlying logic of higher education.  The underlying logic is that the global system of higher education which, in its heartlands of Europe and America, is experiencing a crisis of purpose, is typical of the long history of higher education rather than a contemporary aberration. The underlying logic of the current moment of heightened competition and accelerated academic labour is an imperial and colonial one.  The ‘crisis’ discourse is a crisis of purpose within this logic rather than against it.  If we seek to resolve the contemporary crisis without critiquing it through a transnational history that demonstrates the intimate relationship between empire, colonisation, epistemic dominance, and institutions of higher education then we are in grave danger of re-inscribing an imperial and colonising logic.

What kind of crisis is the ‘crisis’ of higher education?

The core features of the emerging political economy of a global higher education system can be defined by the tension between two political rationalities – economic competition (demands that higher education produce discernible economic benefits for national economies ) and status competition (global university rankings and publication metrics ) and how these are translated into models of governance and funding priorities (systemic level); performance management, recruitment and progression systems (institutional level); and individual strategies to negotiate between personal and institutional objectives and work-life balance (subjective level).  A number of key critiques of this political economy have been mounted by various scholars such as Stefan Collini, drawing out what makes it a ‘crisis’, particularly in relation to various articulations of higher education and the outcomes of scientific endeavour as ‘public goods’.  This ‘crisis’ discourse, however, can be interrogated from the perspective of the global south, specifically the trenchant critiques offered by scholars/activists working with the coloniality of power perspectives such as Maria Lugones, Walter Mignolo, Ramón Grosfoguel, and Anibal Quijano. This perspective makes it possible to highlight the a-historical nature of the ‘crisis’ discourse and how it fails to engage with the conterminous history of empire, colonial expansion, violence, expropriation, and slavery and that of the emergence of the modern university, and that colonial structures of power infuse both the ‘crisis’ and its alternatives.  A transnational history of modern (Westernised) higher education is therefore required.  My work is arguing that an empirical focus on Britain, Ireland and the USA is justified in relation to the thesis put forward by Walter Mignolo that the Enlightenment, upon which the idea of the modern university is founded, is an integral part of European colonial expansion westwards into the Caribbean and Americas.  This analysis argues that in a similar fashion to the Iberian expansion west in the sixteenth century, Britain’s colonial expansion west and later eastwards has imprinted itself on contemporary higher education.  Two illustrative examples of how the emergence of higher education in Britain was co-constitutive of colonialism can be used here:  an account of how the rise of a mercantile class based on wealth from slavery in the Atlantic economy financed the growth of some of England’s leading universities and provides the economic basis for their position as leading global institutions; the second example focuses on the relationship between Scottish universities and development of medical education in the American colonies, referring to the use of the bodies of slaves to build medical knowledge and aid the establishment of modern medical education.

Britain’s western empire, specifically Ireland and America constitute a necessary empirical locus for a transnational history of the ‘crisis’ of higher education.  Ireland is examined in terms of how it was constituted as a semi-peripheral zone in the expanding British Empire and how higher education was constitutive of imperial knowledge entwined with domination and subjection domestically and across the Empire. It is proposed that the semi-peripheral nature of Ireland in the Empire continues to frame the development of higher education in the Republic of Ireland.  American hegemony of higher education is examined in terms of how the dominant imaginaries of higher education are based on slavery, racial science, and violence against Native Americans.

Thinking through the darker side of higher education

The Decolonial Option: Coloniality of power and its challenge to dominant studies of higher education

The main elements of the thesis are that the Atlantic economy is the foundation of capitalism; that the Atlantic economy, particularly the expropriation of resources and enslavement, generated the wealth that enabled the Renaissance and Enlightenment and thus the development of European universities; the intellectual elites in the dominant European powers represented certain strands of European thought as the pinnacle of human achievement; these ways of conceiving the world, organising knowledge, and evaluating knowledge became instruments of colonialism, that it is the close relation between modernity and colonialism that transformed local knowledge (Renaissance and Enlightenment) into universal knowledge, and that these ways of knowing and the associated global power relations persist in the modern world.  The terms of the debates in higher education studies and the ‘crisis’ of higher education present themselves as not being rooted geopolitically (in modernity/coloniality) or bio-graphically (the gender and racial structure of this knowledge).  Consequently, responses to the ‘crisis’ of higher education maintain the global hierarchy of knowledge.  The decolonial option is presented as advocating not an alternative universality but an ecology of knowledge or pluriversity.

Ireland: Settler Colonialism, Imperial Knowledge, and Platform Economy

Ireland’s integration into Britain’s Atlantic economy from the sixteenth century onwards transformed Ireland’s economic and social structures.  The Irish economy became dominated by and subjugated to the demands of the Atlantic economy – the restructuring of agriculture to feed Britain’s colonial expansion west; the organisation of Ireland’s key ports to service the westward expansion; the organisation of industry a) to service British colonial expansion and b) not compete with British industries.  Ireland’s social structure was transformed in relation to these economic and cultural processes.

The long emergence of higher education in Ireland, from the founding of Trinity College Dublin (1592) to the Queen’s Colleges (1845).  Two perspectives can be used to explain how a higher education system emerged in Ireland from the sixteenth century to the late nineteenth century.  The establishment of Trinity College Dublin (1592) can be interpreted through the perspective of settler colonialism and the role of TCD in the establishment of a colonial elite.  The move towards establishing the Queen’s Colleges (1845) in Belfast, Cork, Dublin, and Galway is explained in terms of incorporating two denominational classes into Britain’s Imperial project, particularly as Britain sought to develop its eastern Empire.  It can be argued that the founding of the Queen’s Colleges aimed to incorporate a dissenting Protestant tradition in the North East of Ireland who had been attracted to republican ideologies, particularly in the United Irishmen movement in 1789. An emerging Catholic Middle class that had been mobilised around demands for Catholic Emancipation were also a focus for incorporation within the British Imperial project.  The non-denominational basis of the Queen’s Colleges was a deliberate strategy to attract support from these denominational groups.

The Irish universities came to play a central role in the development and dissemination of Imperial knowledge.  The Geological Surveys of Ireland and then India demonstrate how scientific knowledge related to the mapping of Ireland and India were instrumental in normalising Imperial control, as cartographies of power and legitimation. The surveys also provided an infrastructure for military and mercantile control.

Human capital theory and models of inward foreign investment came to frame the development of Irish higher education policy in the 20th and into the 21st centuries.  Participation in American policy discussions led senior Irish civil servants to advance an economic and education strategy of human capital development from the 1950s onwards. The concept of the ’platform economy’ sheds light on the contemporary economic rationale for Irish higher education policy.  The economic subordination of Ireland to the USA post-1945 mirrors its subordination to British interests in the Atlantic economy.  Post-1945 is seen as the recreation of the Atlantic economy for American interests.

United States: American exceptionalism, slavery and genocide 

America’s Ivy League colleges demonstrate the intimate connection between settler colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade, and the establishment of institutions of higher education.  Burgeoning contemporary research into the relationship between higher education and slavery describe how the early colonial period established this relationship, with the emergent colleges being financed by slavery and providing a professional class for the British colonies in the Caribbean and the slave economy in the south of the American colonies.  This relationship continued into the post-independence period.  The elite nature of the Ivy League colleges and their vast endowments, premised in large part on the slave trade, have provided the material basis upon which these institutions have established their world reputation, and status in global rankings.

The historic expansion of American higher education is based on the expropriation of Native American lands and their violent expulsion from those lands.  The systematic violence against Native Americans was an aspect of the early colonial period, with the eastern seaboard being colonised through consecutive wars.  The expansion west of the United States following the Civil War also relied upon slavery.  However, the westward expansion that created the conditions for the Land Grant universities relied upon the systematic expulsion of Native Americans from their lands, leading to a catastrophic destruction of their social order.  The founding of the Land Grant universities, therefore, constitutes an act of aggression, further underlining the intimate relationship between enslavement, violence and American higher education.  America’s higher education system would provide a necessary basis for the emergence of the United States as the dominant economic force in the new Atlantic economy.

Post-1945 American academia came to dominate intellectual thought globally.  At least two case studies could be used to illustrate this: the impact of American anthropology on South America, on how South America was represented to the world through this, and how it was represented back to South American intellectuals; and how American sociology came to dominate the emerging discipline.  These cases provide the means to demonstrate how epistemological imperialism (and so the coloniality of power) operates in the modern period.

Global Rankings and Human Capital as Continuities in the Coloniality of Power

This project puts forward the argument that the contemporary transformation of global higher education through the two political rationalities of economic and status competition are strategic moves to secure economic and political domination of North America and Britain against the rise of emerging economies and higher education systems, for instance in China.  Global rankings, publication metrics, research finance, and control of academic publishing concentrates epistemological power in a few countries and élite institutions.  I argue that what we see here is not the diminishing of coloniality but what Mignolo and others term the imperial divide – the contestation over domination between competing empires.  Discourses of the ‘crisis’ of higher education are insufficient if they operate within the logic of the coloniality of power and that they inadvertently reinforce epistemological hierarchies. The ‘crisis’ of higher education discourses may, indeed, be acts of epistemic violence.

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