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General Politics Personal Writing Political Debate U.K. Politics

Decolonising Universities and Life

Late September is the period where students flood university halls for freshers. Generally focused mainly on drinking too much and starting their new phase of life. Or rather it should be. Due not only to COVID-19 but also the sloppy A-Level algorithm fiasco, students instead have stress and uncertainty.¹

University used to be a guarantee of a prosperous middle class life. Now it is a tick box exercise for only the possibility of such (particularly if you have opted for something outside of the STEM field). No longer the essential path to a certain standard of living, now it forms one more hurdle to navigate for any sort of basic managerial path at all.

I spent my undergraduate degree at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS), University of London. SOAS is unfairly maligned for its Decolonising SOAS student movement dedicated to introducing more non-European thinkers on the curriculum. Something that should have been a welcome step was portrayed in the media as political correctness gone mad – that all they want to do is reject white men.

It is not any sort of surprise that in education European thinkers are dominant. Even in specialist classes on Africa we would frequently come back to the views of European and American academics rather than African thinkers. And it is frustrating to know that whilst we see value in applying Western thought to other cultures and context, we don’t look to the rest of the world to build up our orthodoxy. The Occident analysis is a side, not a main course.

This is flaw in education is intricately bound with the initial decision to use an A-Level algorithm that tied current students to the ghosts of A-Levels past. The endeavour showed that voices which have always been held up continue to be facilitated. Those at the margins who could contribute something new had to fight to be heard. Even with the change allowing teacher predicted grades to be used, students who were disadvantaged in the first place are likely still faced with issues around admission, housing, finances (especially if they have to delay entry) even if their grades now meet their offer requirements.

Entering higher education as any sort of minority means that sources you use frequently contain errors simply because authors don’t consider something so obvious to you. In older texts Muslims are referred to as Mohammadens because Western European Christians could only see Islam through the lens of Christianity. I have found level of religiousity to be tied to frequency of prayer – you are in the “most religious” group if you pray three or more times a day. It completely ignores that there is a huge difference between a Muslim who does that and a Christian who does. These problems will persist so long as our systems prioritise the same-old same-old.

Cognitive biases are so common, and not just in academia. WhenI write surveys I often conduct cognitive testing to check my assumptions on how someone will read a question actually apply across the board. Once you open your eyes to it you see in even in the little things. Once I accidently kissed a friend’s mother on the mouth because I assumed she would greet me three kisses on the cheek (Sudanese) and she assumed I would give two (Mauritian).

Diversity is not just about race, but class, country, sexuality, field of specialism – the list draws on. Universities instil a confidence in knowledge, but when the knowledge draws only from one type of background you don’t actually get a high quality education. You need to be both challenging and to be challenged. Barriers to allowing different views to mingle, through access to education and texts chosen, is a significant problem.

The most essential thing I have learnt in education is how to handle being wrong and be open to that experience. And I can only find out the numerous things I am wrong about when there are others around – whether in person or through texts to study – who come with different knowledge and perspectives.

 

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Notes

  1. I want to make clear I am not someone who is advocating university education above other forms of continuing learning – technical colleges, apprentinceships, and going straight into work are all important (and I would venture more important) to society and should be funded far better than they are. I am however someone who can’t speak to those experiences, so I am focusing here on academia.
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Personal Writing

The Internet Made Me Lose My Attention Span… But Not Really

I have a confession. I only read a book a week these days; six years ago I used to consume a book a day for pleasure, excluding the reading I was assigned by other people.

It’s all changed because of the internet.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

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Over the past few years I’ve noticed that what I do for fun has changed. I’ve always enjoyed discovering new things from an early age. Information is a valuable commodity and I liked (and still like) wowing people with small, insignificant facts or engaging in lengthy conversations about this or that particular writer. No book was safe – for a short time I had virtually memorised all the flow charts in our battered, home copy of a family medical textbook. I would curl up on my bed inventing fictional ailments to test if I could remember what symptoms I could say yes to without ending at a red box telling me to immediately call the emergency services. I don’t do that any more. Instead I’m on the internet jumping from article to video to forum to obscure Wikipedia page.

There have been so many scare articles over the time in which I’ve shifted away from books. Beware, they all shriek, the internet is destroying the concentration span of your children! Soon all that will be left of modern culture will be a few tweets! Everything else will be too taxing on their underused minds! And we do buy that argument because a lot of us notice how we rarely read all the way to the end of the page, and how we prefer doodles and snappy lines to long reels of text.

I’m not one of those pessimists that say the internet is destroying people. After all, I had a free reign on my internet usage at university but could still sit through hundreds of pages of reading when it came down to it. Realistically those of us in the world that can read and have the opportunity to will be able to cope with a book if we were made to read one. Like riding a bike, the skill never truly drifts away from us. It is our satisfaction that can and has shifted.

Once upon a time I sat entranced for hours with a good paperback. Now I’ll stop every 10/15 minutes or so to write down an interesting train of thought  – something to look up later or write down. I used to be ashamed of this trend as I thought it meant I had become flighty and would rapidly become less intelligent. In fact, like most people who age, I’ve learnt more, but not only that – I’ve learnt proportionally more each year. Modern technology means that we’ve become used to the idea of always learning, always striving for ways to put information into practice. If I want to learn about something I no longer need be a passive recipient; when I am presented with a news item I can look up background information if I want to developed a deeper and more nuanced position, or find the definition of every single word I’m even just 1% unsure about. Because accessing information on technology takes very little time and is incredibly easy, the threshold of what is acceptable ignorance is lower. Consequently it becomes harder to calmly sit through something knowing that you’re missing part of the larger picture.

Books are now refocused as a nice past-time, a way of slowing everything down with a level of focus akin to meditation. They are not the main source of knowledge. We can learn faster along with learning more perspectives on the internet.

Elon Musk, who will likely be remember as the visionary of our time, said in a discussion with Khan Academy “the more you can gamify the process of learning, the better”. The classical methods of learning are now just old.

The internet is affecting us all and we should be fascinated with the possibilities this means for the future.