Decolonizing the University

Re-posting a good one from a year and a bit ago!

I recently saw a plaque in a museum that stated that “universities were a medieval invention”, which then went on to talk about how universities emerged in Europe in the 1200s. While it is true that universities came to Europe during that time, they were not invented there. The first university (and now the oldest degree-granting program) in the world is The University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco, which was founded in 859 (originally as a mosque) by a woman by the name of Fatima al-Fihri.

A few years ago, I became intrigued by the history of the university. I realized that amidst college students’ different interests and ideas, there is one thing that ties us all together; the fact that we attend an institute of higher learning. This pushed me into figuring out how universities got to the place where we are today; often hubs of innovation and social justice ideals. The plaque that I saw in that museum got me thinking back to this post, which I initially wrote back when my curiosity started. I came back to it and edited it to reflect where my thinking is today.

In “Decolonizing the Universities in Africa: An Approach to Transformation” Molefi Asante, an African scholar, makes the point: “It is the inescapable condition of contemporary African education to either be drowning in the messages of the West or the messages of Arabia, but rarely to be asserting its own identity” (Pg 2). For the longest time (and even still today), the image of Africa has consisted of the “Heart of Darkness” image created by Joseph Conrad in his book of the same name. This is the image many of us bring with us when we first approach Africa in scholarship; as a dark place, where life is often bleak and short except for the lucky few.

In the same way that this idea has affected Western ideas of Africa, the ideas that missionaries and colonizers brought to Africa penetrated and colonized the knowledge base of the continent itself, affecting how Africans saw (and see) themselves. Asante claims this Western influence of knowledge as a hegemon, where fear and anxiety have prevented Africans from exploring their own intellectual and conceptual self-realization. Theophile Obenga, a Congolese scholar, saw that part of the way the Western mode of thought became like this was because of the focus on rationality. The paradigm was this; Philosophy is the highest form of rational thought, and because philosophy (as we know it) was created by the West, the West has ownership of it. Thus, the highest of all disciplines and the access to the best ideas were left in the realm of the Europeans.

However, what was present in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans? There were universities in Timbuktu, Schools of Holy Scriptures in Ethiopia, and Al-Azhar “University of Egypt”, as well as other examples. When colonial powers arrived in Africa, they replaced these forms of learning with the academic institutions of their own countries. However, a long time prior to the colonizing movements of the Common Era, the African institutes heavily impacted the ancient world of thought in the opposite direction..Most of the earliest Greek philosophers studied in Africa, and the term philosophia wasn’t introduced to the Greek language before Pythagoras finished his studies in Kemet. Kemet, the ancient native name for Egypt, was a center of higher learning that was varied in its fields of study and strict about the disciplines its students had to master in order to be considered well-educated. Kemet problematizes the idea of philosophy and the idea of scholarship as a non-African idea. That is, if you recognize Ancient Egypt as a black civilization, which many fail to do, lumping it in with the Middle Eastern area on the shores of the Mediterranean and Red Seas.


Cheikh Anta Diop was a Senegalese scholar who wrote a famous passage that stated:

“Ancient Egypt was a Negro civilization. The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt. In particular, the study of languages, institutions, and so forth, cannot be treated properly; in a word, it will be impossible to build African humanities, a body of African human sciences, so long as that relationship does not appear legitimate. The African historian who evades the problem of Egypt is neither modest nor objective, nor un-ruffled, he is ignorant, cowardly, and neurotic. Imagine, if you can, the uncomfortable position of a western historian who was to write the history of Europe without referring to the Greco-Latin Antiquity and try to pass that off as a scientific approach (Diop, 1974).”


There is much discussion over whether the Ancient Egyptians were phenotypically black or more of the tone we see in ancient art, but we do know that they were not white. Nowadays, many people see Egypt as geographically in Africa but culturally as part of the Middle East, and scholars do not often connect Egypt to the rest of the continent. Generally, most of the public accepts the contribution that Ancient Egypt had to agriculture and education through the rest of the world, but Egypt is only one part of the story. The institute of higher learning as we know it was designed in Africa. We cannot push aside the importance of African intellectual thought, especially as it affected the ancients, and through them, all of us today.




As a fun fact: there are important symbols that Westerners hold onto that were actually inspired by Egyptian art. The one that has the most significance to this specific topic is that of the Statue of Liberty, which was originally meant to be a female Egyptian peasant. Although the structure (steel framework) was designed by Eiffel, the statue’s designer was Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who gained his inspiration from the Colossi at Abu Simbel. His statue of a veiled woman representing Egypt was to stand at the entrance to the Suez Canal. Although the project was seen as too costly for Egypt, (especially after spending enormous amounts of money on the Canal), he kept the idea and later edited “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia” into “Liberty Enlightening the World”.


For Further Reading, look at the book Contemporary Critical Thought in Africology and Africana Studies, edited by Molefi Kete Asante, Clyde Ledbetter Jr. The specific chapter used in this article was “Decolonizing the Universities in Africa: An Approach to Transformation”, by Molefi Kete Asante. The passage cited was from the book The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, by Cheikh Anta Diop.

The information about the Statue of Liberty is from this article in the Smithsonian:

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