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Dec 11, 2018

Of Cannons and Canons

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Collecting Ogunnaike Rgb

Oludamini Ogunnaike

University of Virginia

Oludamini Ogunnaike’s research interests include Islamic philosophy, spirituality, art, and African diasporic religions.

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Of Cannons and Canons

The Promise and Perils of Postcolonial Education

Students in Kigoma, Tanzania; photo: Dietmar Temps/

Students in Kigoma, Tanzania; photo: Dietmar Temps/

Learning, children would also forget. Would what they would learn
be worth as much as what they forget?
I should like to ask you: can one learn this without forgetting that,
and is what one learns worth what he forgets?
– Cheikh Hamidou Kane
Your university, like all others in Nigeria, is a cultural transplant whose roots lie in another tradition…. It is little wonder that our so-called modern elite find it easy to violate the very laws and principles which they themselves create. When your own world is put aside, you feel no respect for any other.1
– Waziri Junaidu

Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s celebrated novel Ambiguous Adventure is perhaps best known for its description of colonial education as the ultimate instrument of conquest:

On the black continent it began to be understood that their true power lay not in the cannons of the first morning, but rather in what followed the cannons…. The new school shares at the same time the characteristics of the cannon and the magnet. From the cannon it draws its efficacy as an arm of combat. Better than the cannon, it makes conquest permanent. The cannon compels the body, the school bewitches the soul. Where the cannon has made a pit of ashes and of death, in the sticky mold of which men would not have rebounded from the ruins, the new school establishes. The morning of rebirth will be a morning of benediction through the appeasing virtue of the new school.2

In other words, the conquest is complete when you teach the conquered that their conquest was actually a liberation, as has happened worldwide. Just as it was during the colonial period, the school remains a contested site of power in the postcolonial period around the world. The unique conditions of this postcolonial era have challenged students, educators, and policymakers alike to reform educational institutions, practices, and paradigms to address the colonial legacy, respond to the demands of the rapidly shifting present, and shape the future of our societies.

The promise of this postcolonial moment is that we can create institutions that train students to be intellectually multilingual (i.e., fluent in several different intellectual traditions from around the world). However, the current reality is far more perilous: most institutions are currently producing students who are, at best, intellectually monolingual (i.e., fluent in one tradition but unaware of the existence of others or even hostile to them). At worst, to draw an analogy from work in African linguistics, current graduates are “linguistically stranded”—not functionally fluent in any particular intellectual tradition at all. Harvard professor John Mugane describes this linguistic phenomenon as “necrolinguistics,” citing examples from Kenya, Nigeria, and other African countries where many students lack fluency and even proficiency in any language, whether European or African. I argue that this is true not only of languages but of the intellectual traditions (European, Islamic, indigenous African) that have established themselves on the continent, and that this is true not only of African students but of contemporary students throughout the world, who nearly all study some version of the same modern Western curriculum.3

Unfortunately, both calls for the “decolonization” of education and the defenses of it tend to exacerbate this trend of growing intellectual illiteracy, making ever more urgent the need to construct postcolonial canons that do not replicate the violence, epistemic and otherwise, of the colonial cannons and canons.

The West and the Rest

Canons (or their equivalents) are a necessity of virtually every educational system because, as Harold Bloom writes in his Western Canon, “who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read.”4 Thanks to social media, current estimates indicate that 90 percent of all data has been produced in the past two years,5 so the question of choice has become even more urgent. How and what do we choose to read and attend to in the course of our and our students’ education? And to what end? The different intellectual traditions and civilizations of the world have answered these questions in different ways: the Qing dynasty taught a study of Confucian classics and ritual, making government placements on the basis of a standardized civil service exam; the students at Plato’s Academy studied mathematics, geometry, philosophy, and some natural sciences; the traditional Islamic world had relatively standardized curricula, with students memorizing the Qur’an, and moving on to study Arabic language, logic, mathematics, law, and natural and social sciences. The goal of all these traditions, like that of the early humanist project of the European Renaissance, was to form a “complete human being,” to actualize the human potential through moral and intellectual training—which were not viewed as separate. Many of the most important forms of knowledge in these traditions were considered existential and, as such, were incompatible with certain (unethical) modes of being.

Following the transitions that separated the “secular” and the “religious” in Western Europe, modern education in the West has gone a different route, in which aesthetic and intellectual considerations are separated from ethical ones. Bloom writes, “Whatever the Western Canon is, it is not a program for social salvation…. If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation.”6 While I find this quote very telling (it may be a kind of “origin story” for many of our politicians), it reflects a very recent understanding of the Western canon, which, along with the idea of Western civilization itself (from Plato to NATO),7 is a relatively late (eighteenth- to twentieth-century) construction, by which imperial European powers replaced another reactionary, negative self-definition: “Christendom,” as defined against Islamic civilization. For instance, why do the ancient Greeks belong to the West and not also to the Byzantine or Islamic worlds? After all, Greece spent a millennium under Byzantine rule, and half that under Ottoman rule, and the scholars in tenth-century Baghdad translated into Arabic virtually all of Aristotle’s works we have today in English.8 And why don’t the great and greatly influential Muslim thinkers of Andalusia (e.g., Ibn Rushd, Ibn ¢Arabī) belong to the Western tradition? We have drawn some strange constellations in the night sky filled with brilliant works of literature, philosophy, and science.

The lines of these constellations have been drawn on the peculiar basis of the elevation of a particular to a universal: Western civilization was conceived of as the civilization against which all others appeared as failed attempts that must therefore fall under its rule. Western culture was simply “culture,” and those who had other cultures became “uncultured barbarians”; the Western academy and educational systems were and still are simply “the academy” and “education,” and all the world’s other intellectual traditions are mere “religious training” or “informal education.” In short, difference was and is perceived as lack, privation. It is not coincidental that this view of Western civilization coincided with the imperial project in which thousands of young schoolboys, and a few schoolgirls, were trained to believe in the civilizing mission of the recently constituted West and in their duty to liberate the darker peoples of the world from barbarism and ignorance, bringing them into the light of Western civilization—whether they wanted it or not—justifying the most forceful and distasteful of means through this glorious end result. This brutal imperialism is but the other side of the coin of the modern West’s liberalism: if you and your societies are not rational, liberal, and free in the same way that ours are—so the logic goes—then you are backwards and we will take away your freedom through illiberal means in order to “develop” you and remake you in our own liberal image. As Lord Lugard, the founder of the colony of Nigeria, put it:

As Roman imperialism laid the foundation of modern civilization, and led the wild barbarians of these islands (Britain) along the path of progress, so in Africa today we are repaying the debt, and bringing to the dark places of the earth—the abode of barbarism and cruelty—the torch of culture and progress, while ministering to the material needs of our own civilization.… We hold these countries because it is the genius of our race to colonise, to trade, and to govern.9

Now, this may sound offensive to modern sensibilities, but change “race” to “civilization,” “liberal democracy,” or “rational, scientific society,” and it could come straight from the mouth of a Niall Ferguson or Steven Pinker.10 As one author wrote, critiquing this all-too-common perspective:

There are some things in the human soul which cannot be replaced by means of roads and hospitals. If Europeans believe that they offer those they “protect” liberties they never knew, they do not take into account that these liberties exclude other modes of liberty of which they themselves hardly conceive any longer; they give good things, but at the same time, they impose their own conception of what is good, and this comes back to the ancient saying that might is always right.11

Different civilizations have different definitions of the good, the beautiful, and the just, and the fact that one civilization conquered another does not mean that it is more right about what is good, beautiful, or just. The playground bully is not better at math or poetry just because he can beat you up.

Different civilizations have different definitions of the good, the beautiful, and the just, and the fact that one civilization conquered another does not mean that it is more right about what is good, beautiful, or just.

Now Lugard’s debt has been repaid, and the task has been completed: everyone now lives in a nation-state (itself a modern, Western innovation), and virtually everyone goes through some form of Western education (and development agencies are working hard to include the few holdouts). But we former colonial subjects and children of colonial subjects have begun to speak out in favor of reforming the educational systems that disciplined and trained us. These conversations are usually cast as a part of the “culture wars” or as “multicultural vs. traditional” values, but it is worth noting that these debates have a deeper history, going back to the colonial period itself. In his infamous Minute on Indian Education, T. B. Macaulay rose to support shutting down the Arabic and Sanskrit colleges Britain had been running in colonial India for two reasons: (1) the literature and intellectual traditions (Islamic and Hindu) being taught therein were virtually worthless—absurd, outdated superstitions that delayed the progress of truth—and (2) their graduates were unemployable in the colonial economy. He said,

I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues…. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education….
We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.12

Similarly, the French colonial educators in Africa, in accordance with the mission civilisatrice, stated their goal of creating “little dark Frenchmen.” While this may sound ugly today, if you were to examine the curricula and teaching methods employed virtually everywhere from Lucknow to Lagos to London to Los Angeles, you would see they implicitly support and reinforce Macaulay’s assertion of “the intrinsic superiority of Western literature” and its usefulness in creating “English” or “Western” people of every hue. Nearly all “formal” educational systems worldwide are based on a Western model and Western curricula, even if they are taught in other languages. This is how societies where once even “uneducated” farmers could recite and discuss thousands of verses of the most profound poetry were destroyed and replaced by “highly literate” societies whose educated classes discuss the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Justin Bieber on Facebook and Twitter. As Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote nearly a century ago,

One of the most remarkable features of British rule in India has been the fact that the greatest injuries done to the people of India have taken the outward form of blessings. Of this, Education is a striking example; for no more crushing blows have ever been struck at the roots of Indian civilization than, often with other, and the best intentions, in the name of Education.13

Sensitive students and teachers at many universities around the world, alarmed by the discrepancy between supposedly pluralistic, multicultural, liberal societies and seemingly Eurocentric and Western-supremacist curricula, have called for the “decolonization” of curricula, departments, and even entire universities. This postcolonial challenge has the very promising potential of sweeping aside old ignorance and prejudices and ushering in a new cosmopolitan renaissance,14 wherein Rumi is read and appreciated alongside Dante; Dogen along with DuBois; Mirabai with Maya Angelou; Shakespeare with Chuang Tzu and Shankara; the Bible with the Bhagavad Gita; the Ambedkar–Gandhi debates on caste alongside Marx and Dickens on class and the Locke–Hobbes debates; and the remarkable orature (orally transmitted poetry and traditions) and mythology of the Yoruba Ifa taught alongside Norse mythology, the Mahabharata, and Homer. The principles of selection of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World—that “the book must be relevant to contemporary matters, and not only important in its historical context; it must be rewarding to re-read; and it must be a part of ‘the great conversation about the great ideas’”—certainly apply to vast swathes of the literature and orature produced outside what we have come to call “the West.”

Why do the ancient Greeks belong to the West and not also to the Byzantine or Islamic worlds?

Unfortunately, this promise of a new, plural academy that trains students in the many different ideals of humanity has yet to be realized. Instead, what we generally have are educational systems that teach neither the Western tradition nor any other tradition nor even critical thinking. They have become very good at training students in particular practical and technical skills and techniques, but what they have produced is a bumper crop of “wizards without wisdom”—men and women with remarkable technical skills populating places like Silicon Valley and Wall Street, whose abilities to critically evaluate, understand, or even question why they do the things they do and to understand other perspectives is far more narrow and less developed.

For example: I remember the first time I read Aristotle in a class. I did not understand, nor was I made to understand, why I was studying this “outdated nonsense”—I read and was taught to read Aristotle as a sad premodern attempt at modern science, impressive for its time, historically important maybe, but ultimately as useless as those old-timey flying machines. When I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in my North American high school, my classmates complained that they found the book “whiny” and “anti- white” and that the author (and presumably all colonized peoples) should just “get over it”—“it” being the conquest and destruction of their civilization—because they “lost” and the West “won” because it is “better.” 15

Manuscripts on astronomy and mathematics originating from Timbuktu

Manuscripts on astronomy and mathematics originating from Timbuktu

And how could my classmates think otherwise? Our education had trained them to see things in this way. We were taught various Native American myths as a series of silly, “primitive” but charming just-so stories, at which we should not laugh because of the horrible things the people after whom our schools were named did to the people from whom these stories came—but we were never taught how to engage with this mythology on its own terms, to understand why these stories are so powerful for those to whom they belong. We were never taught to understand them as something other than failed attempts to be contemporary Western philosophy, biology, physics, or literature. We were not taught to see our literary and educational tradition as but one of many, with its own flaws and weaknesses, and we were not taught how to step outside our own tradition to understand and inhabit others.

Part of this is because most students are not even taught the so-called Western tradition itself. Most of my current students are no longer familiar with the Bible, with Shakespeare, with Plato, Descartes, Kant, Mill—in short, they are not familiar with the ideas and idioms that have shaped and continue to profoundly, if subtly, shape their postcolonial realities. When the fish does not know it lives in water, it can never imagine the sky or birds. When you do not learn the Western tradition or ever come up against its boundaries, it is difficult to recognize that it is not universal but rather one tradition among many. Moreover, as a result of the arrogant and racist defenses of the Western canon,16 and the decolonizing reactions to this arrogance, I have even had students turn their noses up at Shakespeare as yet another “dead white male” without ever having read the bard—replicating the same kind of narrow “don’t confuse me with the facts” ignorance of the defenders of the Western canon, albeit in a very different landscape of power. These dynamics are perhaps most clearly seen in the debates to remove and then restore the Western Culture/Civilization requirements at Stanford University, which took place in the 1980s and reemerged in the past few years.17

The Problem with “Diversity”

In former colonies on the African continent and elsewhere, the situation is even worse: not only do these students usually have even less mastery of the Western tradition than their counterparts in Europe and the United States, but they also typically do not know their own ancestors’ intellectual traditions, which colonial education has replaced and nearly eradicated. The study of the humanities and even of the “softer” social sciences in this postcolonial period has become so fragmented that I believe it deserves comparison with the phenomena of necrolinguistics. Linguist John Mugane coined this term to describe the phenomenon of disturbing numbers of sub-Saharan Africans who, due to the demonization of their mother tongues and lack of formal education in them, coupled with deficiencies in European-language instruction, are not fluent in any language, African or European. He writes,

To make language matters worse, Africans would have a virtually intractable problem of trying to learn English as adults in the absence of native speakers of English. This strandedness led to inferiority in perpetuity where one strove to reach the unreachable. While working so hard to learn Portuguese, French, and English, sub-Saharan Africans abandoned their own languages and ways of thinking. Without much practice in indigenous languages, many of the educated occupy a linguistic no-man’s-land.18

Mugane also cites a precedent in the case of some Native Americans of the past century:

White Thunder, a man around forty, speaks less English than Menomini, and that is a strong indictment, for his Menomini is atrocious. His vocabulary is small; his inflections are often barbarous; he constructs sentences of a few threadbare models. He may be said to speak no language tolerably. His case is not uncommon among younger men, even when they speak but little English.
Clearly, White Thunder was living in a time of a language shift and happened to have hit linguistic cul-de-sacs wherever he turned. He did not learn his own people’s language or the dominant language of his day. White Thunder’s case is descriptive of a growing population of children and young adults in many sub-Saharan African countries with restricted vocabularies and highly limited grammar abilities.19

I would argue that this is not just linguistically but also intellectually true of a growing number of students in postcolonial institutions—not just in former colonies, such as Nigeria, but also in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. Not only has the colonial experience marginalized and destroyed non-Western intellectual traditions, it has not succeeded in replacing them with a Western tradition. And even where it has succeeded, we darker sons and daughters have found ourselves integrated into a tradition that seems to be falling apart. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s late lament seems applicable here as well: “I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”20

Most students today are barely intellectually literate in the Western tradition, let alone in the Islamic, Dharmic, Chinese, or others, and the Western tradition itself seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions and its concomitant worship of STEM. Like White Thunder, we are living in a time of a great intellectual shift, and this shift could go the way it did for White Thunder and his people, increasing the marginalization of their languages, ways of life, and ways of thinking. Or perhaps it could go a different way.

The vast majority of calls for “decolonization,” such as those at Cambridge and the University of Cape Town,21 have come in the form of calls to “diversify” the curricula with more authors of Black, Asian, and Middle-Eastern descent and female and queer authors. Some have gone further and demanded better representation of women and so-called minorities among the faculty and student body. And while these are all important demands, I believe they miss the larger point and run the risk, in the words of a character from the great Sicilian novel The Leopard, “of changing everything a little so as to keep everything exactly the same.”

A few examples should help to highlight my concern. Suppose you take a world music class, but instead of learning about traditional Yoruba bata drumming, Chinese opera, Hindustani or Carnatic ragas, and classical Arab and Persian maqams and dastgahs, all you study is Western classical music, and for the sake of “diversity,” they throw in a few contemporary black and Hispanic composers of Western classical music. Similarly, there is a big difference between a traditional West African dance class and a ballroom dance class taught by a Nigerian. Or imagine that in response to students’ complaints about the homogeneity of the food in the cafeteria, the manager has a few cooks with Jamaican and Pakistani backgrounds make the fish and chips—they may be able to sneak in some more spices, but jerk chicken and biryani it is not.

This issue is even more serious in the case of intellectual traditions. It is one thing to read novels by Chimamanda Adichie, Chinua Achebe, or Wole Śoyinka; it is quite another thing to study the orature of Ifa (and you cannot fully understand Soyinka without knowing a bit of Ifa and Yoruba mythology). It is one thing to read Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, or Orhan Pamuk; it is quite another thing to study Sa¢dī’s Gulistān, the Bhagavad Gita, Nagarjuna, Amīr Khusro, Hafez, or Rumi. It is important to read Edward Saïd’s Orientalism, but his oeuvre pales in comparison with the profundity of Ibn ¢Arabī’s work and influence. We should teach Mahmoud Darwish and the sublime love poetry of Nizar Qabbani, but you cannot really understand what they are doing without knowing al-Mutanabbī, Ibn al-Fāriđ, and the classical Arabic qaśīdah tradition, one of humanity’s greatest and most enduring literary achievements. Likewise, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club is no substitute for the four great masterworks of Chinese fiction or the Confucian and Taoist classics. But neither are these classics a replacement for these twentieth-century and contemporary novels and essays; they do very different things in very different ways. But while it is important to be exposed to novels (a modern, Western genre) by authors of different backgrounds, I would argue that it is far more important to be exposed to different kinds of literature from different civilizations, which make the boundaries and limitations of one’s previous thinking and training more apparent. As Goethe said, “He who is ignorant of foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” This is true of the so-called Western tradition itself—its own arrogant denial of the validity or even the existence of other traditions has led to a profound lack of self-awareness and knowledge. Thus, the solution is not to be found in a narrow defense of the classical Western canon or in a push for greater diversity in the gender and race of authors writing within the modern, Western tradition, but rather in a multicanon, multitradition approach that prioritizes the classics (both recent and ancient) of different civilizations and intellectual traditions.

I have always found it odd that, for example, Introduction to Social Studies—the closest thing we have at my alma mater, Harvard, to a great books course—does not have Ibn Khaldūn on the syllabus, when he has been acknowledged by other authors on that syllabus as the father of the social sciences.22 Characteristically, the call to diversify the social studies curriculum has led to the important inclusion of Frantz Fanon and Simone de Beauvoir, but where is Confucius? What author’s legacy, apart from Aristotle’s, could even begin to compare with the millennia of Confucian analysis of and influence upon ethics, social structure, and politics? It is one thing to study the history of different peoples around the world—it is quite another, and perhaps even more important, to study the different ways in which these peoples conceptualize history: the different ways in which they understand time, space, causality, etc. and their narratives about the world and their own place in it. If done well, I can think of no better antidote to the naïve and bigoted Eurocentrism and supremacy that have afflicted and affected all of us—white and non-white, colonizer and colonized—than a clear and committed study of premodern and non-Western intellectual traditions.

This suggestion is perhaps even more radical than it may first appear. Different intellectual traditions not only have different ways of expressing their ideas and wisdom, but they require different modes of study—for instance, orature is not the same as literature and cannot be studied in the same way. Different traditions also have different conceptions of knowledge and different epistemologies, and these necessarily imply different pedagogies. So not only must we teach different things, but we must teach them in different ways. Only in this way can universities truly be said to be decolonizing: when students can study Rumi’s Mathnawī as the masters of his order teach it or the Tao Te Ching or Dogen’s Shobogenzo as the Taoist or Zen masters teach it. This will doubtless require some adaptation on the part of these traditions, but they have always adapted themselves to different situations and times, and this postcolonial moment should be no different. This will also require some adaptation on the part of the universities. But we already have theater, music, dance, and art classes with radically different pedagogies from our STEM and English classes, so why could we not accommodate other kinds of difference in pedagogical practices?23

Sculpture of Confucius in Nanjing, China

Sculpture of Confucius in Nanjing, China

In some ways, this has already begun to happen in higher education: Harvard Professor Michael Puett teaches an undergraduate course called Chinese Ethical Theories, in which students study the theories of Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Mencius, and others as viable ways in which to live and organize their lives, not as mere historical curiosities; as a result, the class is one of the most popular and successful general education courses at Harvard. Mahmood Mamdani’s pioneering Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Uganda has similar goals and ideals. Philosophy departments are slowly starting to recognize the existence and validity of non-Western philosophical traditions (although they still tend to analyze and teach them as if they were analytic or continental philosophy). In religious studies, I have several colleagues who co-teach classes with Islamic scholars or Tibetan lamas or have training in both Western and non-Western traditions and integrate their double-training into their courses. Similar work is occurring in some sociology, anthropology, and area studies departments. However, such work remains largely ghettoized in area studies and has yet to be mainstreamed; it is easy for a student to go through college and never read or even hear about Ibn ¢Arabī, while it is impossible for the same student to avoid encountering the ideas of Descartes or Kant (even if only implicitly). But even in departments of area studies, far too often non-Western thinkers are studied in the old orientalist fashion as data, not as theory—as information about how some people somewhere at some time thought about things, not as viable ways of seeing and being in the world or as claims about the nature of reality to be seriously evaluated—as the thinkers of the Western canon are (or were). Our institutions of higher learning will not be decolonized until we take non-Western thinkers and traditions seriously on their own terms. In doing so, not only will we and our students gain a better understanding of these multiple intellectual traditions, but we will actually ameliorate our poor understanding of the so-called Western tradition. We can transition, as it were, from the strandedness of necrolingualism to the fluency of multilingualism.

Such an approach has numerous practical challenges, but it also has several prominent advantages. Most obviously, it promotes a deep understanding and valuing of differences that goes beyond mere tolerance, which, as we have seen in recent years, is not much of a bulwark against resurgent fascist nationalism. Secondly, such an approach develops elastic and flexible thinking,24 which is particularly important in our rapidly changing times. Thirdly, these traditions, like that of the West, have engaged in important internal debates about gender, race, class, caste, and sexuality (or analogous categories) that can complement and complicate contemporary theorizations of these categories. Finally, this intellectual multilingualism promotes a deeper, more critical understanding of the big questions and fundamental assumptions of all traditions, both “Western” and other, much as multilingual education tends to produce students who know their own mother tongue better than do students in monolingual education.

The current calls for decolonization do not address the intellectual zombification of our students, most of whom are never given the opportunity to deeply understand and critically reflect upon the Western canon, not to mention the other canons.

It is troubling that current education in the humanities often fails to provide a substantial grounding in any tradition; nature abhors a vacuum, and when our educational systems create an ethical, aesthetic, and philosophical vacuum, the most abhorrent ideologies rush in to fill it. Witness the resurgence of racist fascism in its many forms: Hindu and Buddhist nationalism, militant Zionism, Trumpian white nationalism, the European far-right, and ISIS and other radical Islamists. Not to mention more mainstream totalitarianism—whether that of states such as China or that of corporations and cartels, whose cutthroat capitalism has created wealth inequalities more extreme than those of the medieval period.25 French counterterrorism expert Olivier Roy writes that “an estimated 60 percent of those who espouse violent jihadism in Europe are second-generation Muslims who have lost their connection with their country of origin and have failed to integrate into Western societies. ... They are subject to a ‘process of deculturation’ that leaves them ignorant of and detached from both the European society and the one of their origins.”26 Thus we can see how this kind of “intellectual necrolinguisitics” is literally a matter of life and death.

But perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in the issue of the environment. As philosophers and historians of science have convincingly argued, at the root of our current crisis is the modern West’s peculiar conception of nature as inanimate matter, existing only to serve human purposes.27 Seeing nature as a means, not an end—seeing forests as potential building material and development sites instead of as loci of the sacred—is the deep cause of our unsustainable relationship with the natural world. Throughout history and around the world, diverse worldviews have led to different scientific paradigms and ways of engaging with nature. I believe the only way out of our current predicament will come through a fundamental shift in the way we understand and relate to nature—not simply through sentiment, government programs, or green technology.28 Many traditions—Shinto, Taoist, Native American, African, ancient Norse, Celtic, and Germanic, as well as some Hindu and Islamic traditions—provide more sustainable models of understanding and interacting with the natural world from which we must eventually learn.

The contemporary academy has two related challenges: decolonizing itself and reviving the dying humanities. I would argue that the single stone for these two birds is this kind of “multilingual,” multicanon approach of studying the classics of multiple civilizations. The current calls for decolonization are laudable, but they do not go far enough, and they do not address the intellectual zombification of our students, most of whom are never given the opportunity to deeply understand and critically reflect upon the Western canon, not to mention the other canons that were eclipsed by the cannons and schools of colonial conquest. The military and economic superiority of the modern West does not in any way imply its literary-aesthetic, moral, or even intellectual superiority.29 This kind of naïve “might makes right” thinking—to paraphrase Śoyinka, “You are defeated or dead, so I am right”30—is still surprisingly widespread, but the lie is wearing thin. Thus, this particular postcolonial moment offers us a precious opportunity—that of casting aside old prejudices and false certainties, of reviving the humanities and even our own humanity, so that we and our students can truthfully proclaim, in the words of Terrence, the Roman playwright and former North African slave, “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” However, if we squander this opportunity, given the totalizing reductionism of the alternatives, I doubt we will ever get another chance.


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