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Teboho Pitso: History calls for the decolonisation of education

February 6, 2017

“The will to believe signals the end of questions and knowledge.”

One of the key demands of recent student protests in South Africa is the need for universities to transform curricula in such a way as to provide students with decolonised, quality education.

There are many facets to this issue of a decolonised, quality education and I seek to make a modest contribution to this debate by focusing not only on the merit of such an endeavour, but mainly on how a sense of history would help restore some confidence in our students that Africa had also made some huge contribution to this universal, scientific knowledge. This would probably mitigate the alienating conditions of university classrooms for black students.

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

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

The technical aspects of knowledge 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 on knowledge 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, then 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 access from education to free themselves from ignorance, dogmatism, bigotry and native selfishness. Emancipatory knowledge makes students and society access the means to 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, and especially access to the means of exploring new possibilities which talks to the development of students and general society’s creative problem-solving and innovative abilities could only be accessed through exploration of new possibilities.

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

My sense is that this is where quality in university education is put to the test and where universities become complicit in driving a neo-liberal economic and political ideology, narrowly focused on developing employable graduates and less on developing students that can devise new or improved things.

Our universities are thus strong on developing reproductive, rather than productive thinkers (creators and innovators), especially at undergraduate levels and hence 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 is almost always no expectation in disciplines that students could contribute to this already known knowledge by means of sensing its limits in real contexts. Learning becomes distant from real life student experiences and distances students from their heritage and self-pride. In this way, learning becomes the means to control and predict student behaviour to a point where universities become impotent when students act outside these expected behavioural precepts.

Yet, it is when students act outside these parameters of knowing and predictability that real learning occurs, when uncertainty and unpredictability are constant companions. As one social commentator once said, “if it is certain, then somebody else had already done it”. This control and predictability over student behaviour by universities also explains why universities responded so violently to legitimate student demands. Universities are just not geared to deal with uncertainty and unpredictability.

Few universities read students protests correctly and few sought to find out what Habermas discovered in the 1970s about students protests as the search for the higher design of university models, ranging from their funding, visions, strategies and curriculum provisioning. Habermas also attacked violent student  protest as self-delusory and pernicious, but accentuated their search for a better, improved university model that emancipates students, and doesn’t  condemn them to mundane workplace activities and societal assemblies bereft of active agency and critical engagement.

As I earlier stated, my modest contribution to decolonised university education relates to a sense of history which 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 time, as is the popular belief in physics and general society. Avicenna (Ibn Sina), an Arabian, recognised that objects remained at rest or moved in 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 Isaac 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 Isaac Newton named these laws of motion under his name. Another significant omission in our education is on 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 as Egyptians tried various chemical reactions to try and mummify bodies of dead, but significant, Egyptians. This chemistry knowledge was adopted in Europe many years later for the sole purpose of trying to produce gold by chemical means, which is 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 which has been claimed as European knowledge and packaged ideologically so as to undermine the contribution of other nations to science knowledge, and drove 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 that lived in Egypt in the 27th Century and who shaped these fields of Science.

Imhotep is one of the trailblazers in using science discoveries to produce human conveniences in the former of aesthetic and architectural taste which is a definition of engineering whose core is to devise or come up with new or improved things that improve human life. This means that 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 Pythagoras theorem in mathematics, and spent time learning in Egypt, India and other Middle East areas. In fact, the theorem named after Pythagoras was discovered in Egypt long before Pythagoras arrived there. The Rhynd Papyrus dating back to 1650 BC 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 BC called Zoroastrianism actually introduced concepts such as heaven and hell, judgement 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 historical trajectory of science knowledge in our curriculum would probably make a significant contribution in making our students appreciate and critically engage 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 focus 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, which would include debating meanings and origins of science knowledge, hence notions of decolonised education would become clearer.

It is my contention that such university education would have to include access to the means of exploring new possibilities, once the means of critical understanding of complex aspects of science knowledge (origins, trajectories, current strengths and weaknesses) have been accessed beyond just this science knowledge’s trite transmission and absorption as neutral and unproblematic, 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 provisioning. It is not, in my view, a call to reject any form of science knowledge, but to critically engage it and creatively contribute to it as myths are debunked by a strong sense of history.  The call is thus legitimate and should be critically engaged, not quashed by police force.

We should as universities embrace newness when our familiar milieu is made strange by student protests and remember TS Elliot wise counsel that “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 all call a scholarly home.


  1. isak niehaus
    February 6, 2017 - 5:59 pm

    Why does the professor endorse Habermas – who espouses Eurocentric philosophy?

  2. Arthur
    February 6, 2017 - 6:26 pm

    If you really study the history of science, then you will find that for whoever some theory is named after, someone came before him (mostly a him) who contributed to the new theory in some way. Isaac Newton certainly did not suddenly come up with his laws of motion without study of prior learning. But Isaac Newton did have the genius to state these laws mathematically and not as a general statement in terms of philosophy. So, 300 years before Ibn Sina was John Philoponus who came up with the “Theory of Impetus”, thus there is a prior work and knowledge before Ibn Sina. And before Philoponus? Where did he get his ideas from? As for another of your statements regarding Zoroastrianism being the origin of Christianity, well, Christianity had its origins before 200AD in Hellenistic Religion, with its own origins around 300 BCE, way before Zoroastrianism. So I can’t see your point. Your request should be taken up in the departments of humanities and social sciences, where these arguments can rage on. All of this is already known and captured in the literature. Your argument for a restoration of the “historical trajectory if knowledge” is hardly going to get us anywhere, because the historical trajectory is already known, more or less and it is why you can already read about it, produced by the institutions of knowledge that you seem to have such a problem with. So please tell us what myths there are to be debunked and please provide the evidence.

  3. Richard Smuts
    February 6, 2017 - 7:07 pm

    Perhaps don’t just delete comments because they differ with your views News24, you’re supposed to be objective that’s what journalism is about. Repost:

    While I’ll fully agree that certain aspects of our education system need real work so as to be providing the quality side of the education scale (often neglecting to go into detail in certain aspects, Avicenna as an example), the call for decolonised education right now has nothing to do with changing how one is taught and more about REMOVING what is taught. The call right now is not about teaching about Isaac Newton with a view to how it extends what was postulated by Avicenna, but rather about getting rid of that teaching entirely and replacing it with something more “Afrocentric” (ie. something which attempts to appeal to or placate African beliefs and sensibilities) which I feel would be an incredible disservice to the education system – it negates the entire body of scientific knowledge because it’s not “black enough” in their eyes. THAT’s the real problem here.

    That said, while Avicenna absolutely was ahead of his time in his understanding of *certain* laws of motion, we call them Isaac Newton’s “laws” because he was the one who was finally able to mathematically describe and formalize them. Perhaps we should rather call them “Isaac Newton’s mathematical proofs of the laws of motion”, but that’s a bit cumbersome. They’re not “his laws” (since they are a natural event which existed long before he did) but they’re “his proofs of laws”. The same applies to Pythagoras, who was able to mathematically prove what he was observing in the construction of the Egyptian Pyramids and was able to subsequently formulate additional derivative proofs.

    I absolutely believe that education needs a massive reworking, and I fully agree with your assertion that the education system right now is more about creating people who can be sit at their cubicles and be employees rather than creators, employers and open-minded thinkers. If the students were asking for that I would be on board, but they’re not, they’re asking for something far more dangerous. The return to dogmatic, closed-minded, xenophobic, afrocentric fundamentalism.

  4. Arthur Chapman
    February 6, 2017 - 10:15 pm

    You should be aware that Ibn SIna himself was probably influenced by John Philoponus more than 300 years before and who proposed a “Theory of Impetus” or inertia. Philoponus no doubt learned from others before him and so on, including the writings of Aristotle (Greek) ~350 BCE. It was Isaac Newton however who first codified the laws mathematically in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Let us face it, this was a massive advance. Nevertheless, Newton called it the Law of Inertia and it is unlikely he called them Newton’s Law after himself, as you wrote. The Pythagorean principles were understood by the Babylonians at least 1000 yrs before Pythagoras (and the Egyptians), but there is no evidence that the Egyptians offered a proof for the theorem, therefore it gets called the Pythagorean theorem.

    The idea that Zoroastrianism at 600 CE predated Christianity is just false. Christianity had its origins around 200 CE and borrowed much from Hellenistic religion observed around 320+ BCE to 31 CE and the emergence of the Roman Empire, as well as Greco-Roman paganism.

    All of this has been well studied and debated and recorded in humanities literature, based on the evidence available. The historical trajectory of science knowledge is already known from centuries of scholarship and research. It is also the reason you can write something about it, but you haven’t been too accurate on some of the details. So I am not sure what your point is. It seems you have a strong sense of myths, well then, you must show them to us and debunk them with the evidence at hand or provide new evidence. This kind of science knowledge however, is not the same as doing science.

  5. Cecil Rhodes
    February 6, 2017 - 10:27 pm

    Ok, well this guy is just complaining about whose names get attached to what theorem’s. the reason why we use these names and people is because they’re the ones who introduced the ideas to European peoples, the people and culture who would later come to dominate the world. There is no reason to change names or incorporate “African” thinkers other than to satisfy the racist ideology of de-colonization. Renaming everything and reinventing it from an “African” perspective does nothing but confuse people and is totally pointless, another waste of resources that won’t change a thing other than satisfy the egos of African racists. Not to mention a lot of his claims can’t be backed up, this is just an excuse for him to pretend to be philosophical. If people really gave a damn about education they should focus on the quality of the education before throwing hissy fits over who came up with what, South Africa is in the decline and the only way it will be fixed is by bettering education and creating jobs and stabilizing the economy. and not all this racist nonsense perpetuated by political parties and people who would seek to profit from social tensions.

  6. Roy Coleman
    February 6, 2017 - 10:58 pm

    “by making it appear mostly Eurocentric and depriving it of a historical perspective, have universities been implicitly complicit in driving an ideological and political agenda?” No. It would serve Mr.Pitso well to enumerate the science knowledge that has emerged from Sub-Saharan Africa in the last two millenia, in order to demonstrate his contention more clearly.

  7. shaun price
    February 7, 2017 - 7:59 am

    YOUR comments are valid I agree but why are they not universal in the world today. May I modestly suggest you author a “LEARNERS” book in Arabic and have it used in SA universities so we can ALL UNDERSTAND
    BACK TO THE PRESENT. either have all books “study material” in ALL 11 LANGUAGES or SCRAP THIS BACKWARD STEP & USE ONE LANGUAGE similar to NAMIBIA.

  8. Barry
    February 7, 2017 - 8:07 am

    Not sure what your article is about, who should receive credit for all these discoveries or what should be taught in the curriculum at schools and universities? The best would be to put down all the modern technology items you are using now and go live in the jungle and start from scratch to come up with your own “decolonized” ideas to be added and taught, if and only if they differs greatly from the current curriculum then it would be excellent work and you have established a South African made curriculum to be taught in schools and universities. If it’s the same as what we have today in our current curriculum, you wasted your life on trying to prove some stupid idea of decolonizing education.

  9. Matthew Pienaar
    February 13, 2017 - 6:23 pm

    I absolutely agree with the need to teach students to discover new things rather than just to recycle old knowledge, but there are two points i disagree with. First, the decolonisation argument is ridiculously petty. Quite frankly no-one really cares about who discovered certain laws and who they are named after. The application of the laws is what is important. And second, one cannot rationally defend the protesters and put the blame for the violence on the universities, when it is the protesters who initiated the violence and forced the universities into bringing police and private security onto campus.


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