Are our universities really open to the world?

A carte blanche from Philippe Major, researcher at the University of Basel

We live in a “global village”. Globalization has made national borders porous. The world is within reach of today’s youth.

This is the image that is often presented to us of the world. At least for “us” who have the privilege of being able to travel around the world, “we” who have the right type of passport, one for which borders are blurring and crumbling.

And yet, according to the curriculum of European universities, we have to admit that the globalization of capital has not been accompanied by the globalization of knowledge. “We” live in a village that is at most regional, in a Europe which is constantly rethinking itself, but forgetting to think of the other and to think of itself through the other.

Quebec, Taiwan then Singapore

When I began my history studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal in the early 2000s, it was already possible to specialize in so-called “non-western” history. The program was not perfect. The vast majority of non-Western history lessons were intended to be introductory. And for some reason that still escapes me, the Latin American courses were part of the “non-Western” curriculum. But it was possible to take a number of courses on China, Japan, India, the Ottoman Empire, Latin America and Africa.

In the history department of National Taiwan University, where I did my master’s degree, one-third of the courses offered went beyond the Taiwanese and Chinese world. Classes on the West abounded, but it was also possible to take classes on Japan, Korea, the Middle East, or classes taking a global historical perspective. It is true that the courses on Africa and Latin America were conspicuous by their absence. But it is worth remembering that historically Taiwan has had only extremely limited contact with these regions.

I then did my doctoral studies in Chinese philosophy at the National University of Singapore, where courses on Anglo-Saxon philosophy occupied a prominent place in the curriculum, alongside courses on Indian and Chinese philosophical traditions.

At KU Leuven: a shock

After these experiences, my first contact with a European university was a shock. How could this Europe, the one which in my history books was presented as open to the world, proud of having “discovered” the world, be closed in on itself? At least this is the obvious observation when looking at the curricula of KU Leuven and other European universities.

While I was undertaking a postdoc at KU Leuven in 2018, Carine Defoort, professor of Chinese studies, invited me to participate in a think tank on “multi-regionalism” in the university curriculum. Supported by Metaforum, the interdisciplinary think tank of the university, the group was made up of professors from various departments with varied backgrounds.

An unflattering inventory

Very early on, we wanted to take stock of the university’s curriculum. For these purposes, we have listed the courses offered as part of a good number of Bachelor and Masters programs offered in Dutch by KU Leuven in the academic year 2017-18. The aim was not only to see which regions were covered by the curriculum. The stake was rather to know if the students, in history as in other disciplines, had access to new perspectives making it possible to decentralize a little bit Europe, or at least to situate it in a larger and more world. varied.

Our work led us to the drafting of a report, brought to light on November 26, which gives an unflattering assessment of the place of multiregional education at KU Leuven. But the picture he paints is not unique to the university. Far from there. The problem he brings to light is European in scope.

Our observation is as follows. Of all the courses offered by the history department in 2017-18, only 7% focused on regions outside the “paradigmatic West” (Western Europe and North America). In the Faculty of Philosophy, this rate fell to 4%. In the departments of sociology, economics, and geography, no courses were devoted to these regions. Other departments were doing a little or a lot better: 15% of political science courses, 20% of theology and religious studies courses and 42% of anthropology courses focused on “non-Western” regions.

Comparisons with China

For some departments, we also compared our results to the situation in American, Chinese and Taiwanese universities. The results of this comparison will surprise some. For history departments, while foreign universities offered around 1.1 courses in their own region for each course offered in other regions, this ratio was 5 courses in the West for each course in another region in the KU Leuven!

Notable fact: while Peking University offered two history courses of sub-Saharan Africa, the history department of KU Leuven offered none, despite the Belgian colonial past. It is true that the situation of the history department has improved over the past three years. But this still remains very far from the portrait we have drawn of American, Chinese and Taiwanese universities.

China is more open … in knowledge

With regard to the philosophy faculty of KU Leuven, the situation was roughly similar to that in American universities, where 2 to 4% of the courses offered were concerned with “non-Western” philosophies. These statistics reveal that behind the universal claim of Western philosophy lies a surprising insularity. In contrast, 66% to 69% of philosophy courses offered by Chinese and Taiwanese universities were devoted to “non-Chinese” traditions.

This assessment calls into question certain commonplaces about China, in particular as regards its alleged lack of interest in the outside world. The statistics don’t lie: in terms of knowledge, China is much more open to the world than Europe. That said, there is no doubt that Europe is doing much better than China when it comes to freedom of expression. But it is high time that this freedom was put at the service of a much more diverse vision of the world. Otherwise the only freedom that will remain for Europe will be that of continuing to think of itself behind closed doors, in a village which will have no “global” than the name.

>>> The report on multi-regionalism in the KU Leuven curriculum will be presented to the public this Friday as part of an event organized by Metaforum at KU Leuven. Those who wish to participate in the event can do so by registering on the following web page:

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