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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2006

The Eurocentric University Defended

Lord Bhikhu Parekh ("Fighting the War on Dogma" Bulletin, November 2006) makes the familiar claim that universities should not be dancing singularly to the jingles and the rhythms of the marketplace. Who can disagree with his argument that they should be places in which questions are asked and answers are pursued according to the ideals of reflective reason, free to engage critically the traditions we inherit. But there is one dogma Parekh cheerfully embraces, and it is the official one that multiculturalism is the right way to advance knowledge and encourage open debate in our universities.

He defines universities as institutions that (ideally) stand for “universality” and are “open to all currents of thoughts irrespective of national and cultural origins (…) By embodying the spirit of multiculturalism in its composition, teaching and thinking, the university communicates to its students both a love of diversity and a sense of human solidarity.”

Parekh calls for fairness too: he does not want Muslims, or any other religious believer, to claim for themselves the privilege of not having their beliefs subjected to rational scrutiny on the grounds that such openness may “unsettle their convictions or hurt their sentiments.” The good, the bad and the ugly of all cultures should be the subject of unrestricted debate.

Love, diversity, solidarity and evenhandedness — is there anyone in the house who would like to disagree with these pleasantries? I would because these wonderful words are guided by a multiculturalism that knows no distinctions between the intellectual and educational capabilities of the cultures of the world.

What Parekh desires is to turn our universities into playgrounds where all beliefs and cultural traditions are deemed equal in their diversity, and are encouraged to coexist in a state of equal value and equal faultiness. Forty years of multiculturalism are hardly enough, “new types of courses should be set up in the spirit of multiculturalism (…) to free the university of its traditional Eurocentrism.”

There is a small problem here. All the traditional disciplines originated in the West, and so did most of the great philosophers, historians, scientists, composers and painters. The very idea of cultural development is Western. Universities have long encouraged the study of non-Western cultures, Chinese philosophy, Islamic Studies, Japanese history, Cultural Studies, and for excellent reasons.

The Western disposition to learn from other cultures, to recognize and celebrate the greatness and diversity of others, is itself another reason why we should not think of the West as just one more culture among loads of others. European higher culture must always remain at the center of higher learning because there is no higher culture. Multiculturalism without Eurocentrism is incompatible with a university education.

Ricardo Duchesne
Sociology, University of New Brunswick