01st February 2021

Book in Focus

Decolonising the University

The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice

By Boaventura De Sousa Santos

Kicking off Book in Focus for February is Boaventura De Sousa Santos, who introduces Decolonising the University: The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice, recently re-published in paperback format. The book considers the nature of the transformation that the university is undergoing today, arguing that some of the current reforms are so radical that the question of the future of the university may well become the question of whether the university has a future.

In the last decade I have been frequently questioned about the future of the university. Both my students and the university publics attending my lectures in Europe, the Americas, and Africa have become increasingly interested in knowing more about the causes of the “crisis” of the university and about the alternatives facing it in the next decades. If we limit ourselves to the last hundred years this is a new concern. Traditionally, the university has been a privileged site to address the problems facing our societies. However, in recent years, the university itself has become a problem. Alternatively, we may think that after all the university has always been plagued by problems. Otherwise, how can we explain that in the past so much innovative and transformative knowledge was developed outside the university? Just think of the intellectual legacies of Ibn Khaldun, Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. There is no reason to think that the same is not happening today.

The history of the university gives us a twofold image. At each particular historical moment, the university appears as a heavy and rigid structure resisting changes, whereas throughout time it has actually undergone many changes. Often such changes have been drastic and almost always provoked by factors external to the university, be they religious, political or economic factors. For this reason, when we consider in our time the problems facing the university worldwide it is as important to look back as to look forward.

I argue in this book that, for the past 40 years, the university has been undergoing a process of change to which both external and internal factors contribute. The projects of change being proposed are so contradictory that, depending on the evolution of the conflicts they generate, the question about the future of the university may well turn into the question of whether the university has a future. In this context, if the objective is to guarantee the future of the university, resistance to certain kinds of change may not be a negative factor. I identify two main problems, a top-down problem and a bottom-up problem. The top-down problem is the project to convert the university into a business enterprise and the knowledge and training it produces into commodities with a globally defined price tag. I call this project university capitalism. The bottom-up problem is the demand coming from students and progressive faculty and publics that the university face the dark side of its past as the main site for producing the knowledge and personnel training that carried out and legitimated the colonial project, thereby causing the oppression of people, the plunder of resources and the destruction of non-western knowledge. I call this demand decolonizing the university. Hence the book’s title.

The book is divided into three parts. In each of them, I try to respond to a major question. In the first part, the question is: the university being an institution of knowledge, which are the main issues raised by both epistemology and sociology of knowledge concerning the kinds of knowledge produced and reproduced at the university? In the second part, the questions are: what are the main challenges that have been facing the university for the past 40 years, and face them today more than ever? Are we about to face a situation in which creativity, free and critical thinking, and profit-free knowledge and innovation will become more and more marginalized, often considered suspicious or simply useless? Finally, in the third part, I reply to the question: is it possible to decolonize the university?

This last question provides the main focus for my book. In recent years we have witnessed across the world, in the global South as well as in the global North, vast protests by the students against the colonial identity of the university expressed in the curriculum, the selection of the student body and faculty, research priorities and biases buildings and statues, exclusionary fees, etc., etc.

As the colonial project is at the heart of the protests, it must be expected that the issues raised in the former colonies differ substantially from those raised in the former colonizer. Indeed, this is the case. But it is also the case that some issues are basically the same, attesting the deep globalization to the Eurocentric models of university.

How do we get out of here? For instance, has all the knowledge produced by the universities become useless or even pernicious? If not, how to select which knowledge to keep and which to discard? In the last two chapters I offer some positive proposals based on alternative education projects in which I have been involved. Such projects ask for epistemological and pedagogical changes which in my view guarantee a bright future for the university.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Coimbra (Portugal), and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is Director Emeritus of the Center for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra and has written and published widely on the issues of globalization, sociology of law and the state, epistemology, social movements and the World Social Forum. His books have been published in several languages: Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, German, Italian, Romanian, Chinese, Korean. His most recent books in English are: Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. Paradigm Publishers (2014); If God Were a Human Rights Activist. Stanford University Press (2015); The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Durham and London: Duke University Press (2018); Toward a New Legal Common Sense. Law, Globalization, and Emancipation (third edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2020).

Decolonizing the University: The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice is now available in Hardback, Paperback and Ebook formats. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount. You can access the first 30 pages of the book free of charge by clicking here