So how DO you decolonise science?

I have been involved in a number of discussions around this topic recently, since publicly expressing my dismay at the appalling naivety of the poor #sciencemustfall proponent who dislikes gravity in particular, and all western science in general.

I say appalling naivety deliberately, because what she said is more evidence of a lack of decent education in science, than of any personal deficiencies. Simply put, MOST children in South African schools – and I do NOT mean exclusively schools catering for lower-income groups – are not exposed to science education of a standard that remotely approaches what I and others were exposed to outside this country.

Seriously: as an educator of some 35 years standing at UCT, I can tell you that it’s easy to see the products of the top-end South African schools, and from the Zimbabwean and other African education systems, because THEY COME IN BETTER PREPARED. Their maths is better; they know more physics and understand it better; they have actually been educated, as opposed to having been schooled in how to answer exam questions.  Additionally, they know it’s not a sin to ask questions, or even to express a contrarian view.

Any effort to decolonise science education MUST start lower down than the Universities, therefore, if we are to seriously address the low quality of the offerings at most schools in SA.

And once the students have got to the universities, what then?

One of the first things that should happen is some penetration of basic science into the Humanities: we often hear about how science and engineering students need a dose of philosophy; however, the naivety I referred to above comes from a University student who has evidently not been exposed to the concepts of science as it is practiced worldwide.

Others have pointed out recently that science isn’t “Western” or “Eastern” or “African” – rather, it is is a system of investigation that is universal, built on facts obtained via discovery, and using theories arrived at by careful investigation of hypotheses, that is not Euro- or Amero- or Afrocentric.

Oh, but the history of science could be all those things – and possibly the ways in which history is used in the teaching of scientific subjects and disciplines could be changed – including my own history of virology, that I spent so much time getting together recently.  Yes, the History of Science as we know it is preponderantly about what Old White Men (and some women) did in Europe and later in the US; we need to work on expanding that world view.

However, the teaching of skills, and of the disciplines necessary to practice science, are universal, and must be appreciated as being absolutely required for our students to be taken seriously out in the world.  As a crass example, while it may be acceptable for a scientist anywhere to be devoutly religious (and many are), a belief that witches are real and that they can call down lightning, is almost certainly not – and African should not be a special case for this.

My spouse and partner in science said recently that all we should have to say in defence of what we do in science in this country, is “We use world-class science in Africa to solve African problems”. And we teach other Africans how to do it too.

So, what to do for teaching science in our decolonised universities? Here’s my off-the-top-of-my-head list:

  • De-emphasise some of the history, where it is not needed as object lessons in the methods of discovery
  • Use appropriate examples from Africa and some of the rest of the developing world to illustrate applications
  • Change the way we teach, from one-to-many to many-to-many: have more discussions based on set readings, rather than formally lecturing
  • Engage more enthusiastically with problem-based learning, with the problems derived from local publications or publications based on local research
  • Establish study groups with a balanced mix of people from all backgrounds, so stronger students develop an appreciation of the lack of exposure to the concepts necessary for understanding a discipline, of weaker students – and the latter get pulled along

But above all, try to inspire: let your enthusiasm for science and for your own work shine through, and try to bring people with you. That’s how I got to where I am, as did so many of my colleagues – good mentors, and a thorough exposure to the magic inherent in what we do.


About Ed Rybicki

Ed is a 60-ish virologist and biotechnologist, formerly a Zambian and presently a South African. He is into family, virology, biotechnology, science in general, science fiction in particular, photography, red wine, wearing loud shirts, 70s rock, blues and smooth jazz...and telling stories. Sometimes, interesting ones. And writing for his own amusement.
This entry was posted in Books, Personal stories, science controversy. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to So how DO you decolonise science?

  1. Pingback: Decolonising science? | Scientific Gems

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