Experiments in Decolonising the University

Towards an Ecology of Study

From Experiments in Decolonising the University: Towards an Ecology of Study (Routledge, 2021)

Introduction: Inhabiting the Ruins of Excellence

The military outpost of Oush Grab – the Crow’s Nest – is situated between the city of Bethlehem and the Judean desert at the narrow bottleneck of the migratory paths of birds of different feathers. Yearly, more than 500 million swallows, wheatears, eagles, storks, and cranes navigate the skies over the Jordan Valley as they migrate from northeastern Europe to East Africa and back during spring and autumn. Located on a high hill and surrounded by a giant earth mound erected by soldiers during the Second Intifada, the barracks are a common point of orientation for the flocks. The birds recurrently interrupt their migration on the hilltop, giving way to an instantaneous and precarious ecology of small predators and other wildlife attracted by the feathered passers-by.

Given its location on a hilltop, the site has a long history of being a strategic point. It is of significance not only to the age-old back-and-forth movement of flocks of migratory birds and their companion species that temporarily inhabit the site, but also to human beings that have a military interest in the surrounding, lower-lying lands and seek to obtain a more permanent residence there. Situated in the boundaries between town and desert, and due to the distinct topography of the hill, it has served as an excellent lookout for centuries. Before its occupation by the Israeli military, the Crow’s Nest was led by the Jordan Legion, who took it over from the British troops during the Arab Revolt of 1936–9. Some believe that in earlier times it served as an Ottoman outpost and may have been first used for military purposes by a Roman regiment.

One early morning in April 2006, the inhabitants of Beit Sahour, a small town on the eastern outskirts of Bethlehem, witnessed the evacuation of the Crow’s Nest. The withdrawal of the Israeli army was the last act in a long struggle of Palestinian activists against the oppressive presence of the base. Continued opposition against the outpost by the local community and the concurrent refashioning of the military’s geographical organisation in the area led to the sudden abandonment of the base. On the morning after the evacuation, people from Bethlehem overran Oush Grab, smashing windows, walls, and doors with iron bars. At the same time, others tried to salvage everything of even the least worth. Doors, furniture, and electric plugs were detached from buildings, and the water tower in the centre of the base partially collapsed due to the removal of steel reinforcement bars.

How to Live with and in Ruins?

The evacuated military base, desolate and destitute, confronted the inhabitants of the neighbouring area with the issue of how the ruins of such an oppressive architecture could be re-inhabited at ‘the very moment that power [had] been unplugged: the old uses [were] gone, and new uses not yet defined.’ It opened up questions concerning the remnants of the Crow’s Nest: given its current state, how could it be inhabited in a different, less violent, way in the future?

Shortly after the raid, Palestinian government officials and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) advocated the view that a police force must defend the base in order to avoid further vandalism, and hence to continue using the base within the framework of a military occupation. Some of the inhabitants, however, opposed this perspective and suggested ‘to stay with the trouble’ and to start to think about possibilities for use other than the two that had already begun to actualise, namely brutal destruction or unquestioned reuse.

According to these inhabitants, neither destruction nor reuse seemed to be a desirable course of action because both refused to engage with the present ambiguity of the place, either to eradicate its colonial past or to superimpose a future that would entail a continued unproblematised re-inhabiting of the infrastructure. Through the inhabitants’ efforts, the situation began to initiate a thinking process around the issue of decolonisation as such and, more specifically, the question of ‘how people might live with and in ruins?’

The question of the possibility of life in the ruins of colonial oppression is all the more urgent for Oush Grab since most of the refugee camps in the area came into being in 1948, shortly after the establishment of the state of Israel, an event narrated in the camps as the Nakba, the catastrophe that caused the Palestinians to flee from their homes. Historically speaking, the main narrative of resistance in the Palestinian refugee camps is hence that of the right of return, of the desire of the exiled people to return to their homes from before the Nakba.

However, to the young refugees living in these camps, who were born there and raised by parents who themselves lived most of their lives in the camps, the right of return remains, despite its narrative force, a somewhat abstract claim, as they have never actually lived in the houses that they would return to. Therefore, it is hard for them to understand decolonisation in terms of an effectuated right of return. Instead, from their perspective, the possibility of decolonisation and the challenges that come with it evoke another question.

Reformulating the question from ‘how to effectuate the right of return?’ to ‘how to live with and in ruins?’ makes a slightly different problematisation of the situation possible, opening up a different mode of response. Whereas the first question seems to necessitate political and even juridical action aimed at a predefined goal, the second question allows the inhabitants to think through what is happening in their present lives and opens up the possibility of a response that entails more than a plea for a return to the private home of the past.

Instead, it requires thinking collectively about what it means to live inside the ‘extraterritorial’ space of the camp when it is no longer a temporary state of exception, but has become an enduring condition where exception has become the rule. Taking extraterritoriality not as an exception to be remediated but as a starting point for speculating about different modes of living together, inhabitants of the camp felt they needed a way of organising themselves other than, for instance, as a political action group, an NGO, or a social work organisation in order to sustain the processes of thinking about decolonisation instigated by the abandonment of Oush Grab. Interestingly, they decided to gather as a university, a place for collective study.

In doing so, Campus in Camps, an experimental university in Dheisheh Refugee Camp, tries not to abandon the ruins. Instead, the studiers take up the challenge of responding to the question of how to live there, how to create, in the present, a future that differs from those informed by ideas ranging from ‘the militarised security institutions of ‘Israeli liberal democracy’ to the rabbinical theodicy of some of its colonists, from the militant Islamism of Hamas to the quasi-secular authoritarian rule of Fatah in the West Bank.’

Reproduced under Creative Commons licence from http://www.campusincamps.ps/about/

The work of Campus in Camps is all the more interesting as the initiative explicitly claims the name university, despite the apparent dissimilarities with contemporary understandings of the university. Campus in Camps, for instance, does not offer degrees; there are no admission criteria for prospective students, nor does it have an extensive research program of which the results are published in academic journals. Moreover, it does not strive for ‘excellence’ or seek to attract the interests of the industry or other big funding bodies. On its website, no information can be found about the different faculties, research centres, or curricula, simply because it does not have any.

Hence, by claiming ‘university’ as a name for their collective, Campus in Camps has simultaneously put in motion a process of thinking about what it means to be a university out of institutional bounds. Instead of looking at the university from the top, as an institution for research and teaching inhabiting a global knowledge economy, it requires focusing on the doings of the various forces gathered within the university itself and on how study allows them to go beyond the constraints of institutionalisation to surpass what the university (in the ‘traditional’ sense) demands from its inhabitants. Put differently, making abstraction of the institutional paraphernalia associated with contemporary universities, the work of Campus in Camps narrows the focus on the practices of the university and, more specifically, on its practices of study. As such, it offers a point of departure to reconsider the future of the university itself.

In times when universities seem to concern themselves less and less with societal issues that are not immediately profitable, it is interesting to see that the precondition for the work of Campus in Camps seems to be a deep and strong entanglement between the university and its sociopolitical environment. Crucially, however, this entanglement never boils down to an instrumentalisation of study for the sake of liberation or emancipation in terms of futures already known. Instead, the wager of the studiers of Campus in Camps consists of having practices of collective study – such as reading texts, fieldwork exercises, discussing movies, and storytelling – to allow them to attend to the possibilities that persist inside the situation they find themselves in and thereby create footholds for speculation about alternative futures.

Moreover, these speculations never take place in general, but always in relation to the situation that is being problematised. Thus, in a genuinely pragmatic fashion, they allow for making other worlds possible, not in the sense of a purely abstract ‘out-of-this-world,’ but as a different world within this world. Studying, in that sense, is not just a means to learn about the camp and its inhabitants to acquire the skills and competencies that the status quo requires. Instead, it means to engage in transformative processes which give the camp itself a voice in the aspirations for its future.

The collective of studiers of Campus in Camps forces us to situate study on the level of the practices that populate the university as a vector of worldly becoming thoroughly enmeshed in and entwined with ruinous, messy environments, an ecology of study. What this exactly means will be explored throughout the book. The problem to begin with, however, is how the study practices of this Palestinian experimental university can also begin to matter to us, students and scholars of another kind of university for whom the issue of decolonisation and the question of how to live with and in ruins is a slightly different one.

From Decolonisation to Decolonisation

For those inhabiting the universities in Europe and America – the so-called excellent institutions for research and higher learning – it might feel somewhat remarkable that the camp dwellers of Dheisheh decided to organise themselves as a collective of studiers, a university. In the West, academics and students incessantly keep voicing their discontent with higher education policy and university management during protest marches, actions, and strikes. For us indeed, inhabitants of those ‘excellent’ universities, the name of the university seems to have been spoiled, and its role played out. Not only is the university accused of being an ivory tower, remaining indifferent to the relevant questions and problems of everyday life, it is, at the same time, blamed for having re-organised itself into a knowledge factory that is only interested in useful expertise and the sale of degrees.

Moreover, given the centrality of decolonisation as a cause for collective concern, it seems all the more remarkable that the studiers of Campus in Camps started to assemble under the guise of a university. The university itself has indeed played a major part in the colonial project by creating and consolidating a Eurocentric system of knowledge with universalistic pretences. Especially from the early nineteenth century onwards, the university became a crucial actor in the construction of a Western canon reflected within the different academic disciplines, often at the expense of non-Western ideas, thoughts, and ways of knowing. Important to note is that the excluded non-Western perspectives not only came from other-than-Western regions, but also that a process of ‘epistemicide,’ to quote Boaventura de Sousa Santos, took place to eradicate those ideas that nevertheless originated in the West, but did not comply with Enlightenment ideas of universalism, emancipation, and progress.

However, next to canonising specific ways of knowing, thereby granting them a universalistic stature, at the expense of others, the university also greatly assisted in the spreading of these ideas, predominantly in the national context of the home country. First, the university was the prime educator of the social and cultural elites of the emerging nineteenth-century nation-states. To that extent, it functioned as a gatekeeper to the superior Western system of knowledge and the professions that required this knowledge (e.g., lawyers, doctors, ministers). Besides, the university was a hotbed for the emergence of a national culture sharing these Enlightenment values to which lower layers of society could aspire. Lastly, and perhaps most saliently, the university played an important role in the construction of knowledge about indigenous populations and related race theories, including the spreading thereof to the public via the disciplines of history, geography, and anthropology.

Therefore, when raising the question of how to inhabit the ruins of the university, a certain ‘decolonisation’ seems to be pertinent as well, although the notion assumes a different meaning here. In recent decades, decolonisation has become a major theme in criticisms of higher education. Achille Mbembe underscores that decolonising the university is a multifarious project that includes, for instance, the removal of colonial inscriptions from the campus, the inclusion of other-than-Western perspectives in the curriculum and the lecture hall, and the democratisation of systems of access and management (e.g., hiring criteria, methods of evaluation). Interestingly, Mbembe claims that decolonisation also implies ‘breaking the cycle that tends to turn students into customers and consumers,’ thereby forging an alliance between decolonial and anti-capitalist struggles. Put differently, decolonisation does not limit itself to the historical legacy of colonialism in particular, but also interrogates the logics and mentalities that continue to occupy the university until today.

Returning to Campus in Camps, it is intriguing that their concept of decolonisation does not focus primarily on institutional or curricular reform. Rather, decolonisation emerges as a stake in an ongoing process of study. Therefore, it is situated not at the end, but at the core of the educational process. Whereas for Mbembe and Santos, decolonisation is first and foremost a political project with a strong epistemological bearing, the studiers of Campus in Camps present us with a practice of study that is itself a way of decolonising, having the power to decolonise established perceptions and conceptions of the university as well. In that sense, a study of this experimental university could be a manner to meet the demands of a ‘permanent decolonisation of thought,’ to quote Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, a way of detaching ourselves from the capitalist and colonial conceptions of the university we have grown so accustomed to.

In other words, because the disconnection of the university from common questions and concerns, as well as its reconnection into social life via market relations (e.g., student as consumer, the commodification of knowledge in patents and degrees, strengthening of industry–academy partnerships), has left this age-old institution in ruins, the question of how to live with and in ruins, and hence of decolonisation, matters to those inhabiting the contemporary universities in the West as well, although in a different manner.

In that sense, Campus in Camps, this small-scale, radical practice of collective study that has begun to call itself a university, offers a starting point for recovering and reinterpreting the spoiled name of this decaying capitalist and colonial institution. Triggered by this sudden reclaiming of the name of the university, the question is how the ruined institutions of higher learning – ivory towers and knowledge factories alike – can be reconsidered, and how it is possible to think differently about the relations between science and society, knowledge and action, or the public and the university.

Therefore, three questions motivate this book. First, there is the question concerning the tasks of the university. Traditionally, these have been regarded as three separate domains of research, teaching, and service. Second, there is the question concerning the relationship between the university and society, or put differently, how the university takes part in processes of worldly transformation. And third, there is the question concerning the future of the university. How do certain contemporary issues and challenges urge us to rethink the university radically?

Throughout the book, I propose to reclaim the university as an ecology of study, to re-entangle the three traditional tasks of the university, to reconceptualise the relation between world and university, and to reconsider the university’s future.

Inasmuch as the three questions above orient my inquiry, what principally situates it is the practice of study of Campus in Camps. Campus in Camps offers an opportunity, both contingent and urgent, to think differently about the institutions for higher education that have become prime pawns in the competitive market for cognitive labour. Its study practices challenge to reaffirm the relationship between university and society without either accepting its instrumentalisation in capitalist enterprises of knowledge production and commodification or hearkening back to the imagined Edenic past of an intellectual stronghold in which academics could study ‘in freedom and solitude.’

Instead, in Campus in Camps, the university emerges as a place of assembly where questions concerning what can be known and how it can be known get thoroughly enmeshed with questions of living together, and the possibility of a future that acts upon the continuity of the present, rather than annihilating it or taking it for granted. Due to the work of Campus in Camps, the proposition of an ecology of study acquires a highly concrete and precise significance.

Nevertheless, turning to Campus in Camps does not mean to look for a blueprint for a university-to-come. Nor does it mean to instrumentalise Campus in Camps to illustrate a general theory. Both of these approaches would indeed turn the Palestinian experimental university into an example that either needs to be followed or clarifies a philosophical argument. Instead, pointing out that Campus in Camps situates my inquiry draws attention to the fact that it offers an initial – and given the exceptionality of the situation always precarious – impulse to think again about the current state of the university without determining how we should think about it, and without offering a model of an ecology of study. In that sense, the study of Campus in Camps is itself a point of departure for decolonising the university, or at least our ways of thinking about it, while reclaiming it as an ecology of study.

Before giving more substance to the proposition of the ecology of study, I will map the environment in which this proposition comes to matter, from which it draws its relevance, so to say. This approach first requires providing insight into the actual trends and tendencies that have left the university in a state of ruin. Furthermore, I will explore different ideas that might inspire new ways of thinking about the university, including the various problems these ideas confront us with. Bearing this in mind, at the end of this introduction I will return to the proposition of an ecology of study and how it will be developed throughout the book.

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Full Citation Information:
Schildermans, H. (2023). Experiments in Decolonising the University: Towards an Ecology of Study. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/experiments-in-decolonising-the-university/

Hans Schildermans

Hans works at the University of Vienna. He wrote Experiments in Decolonizing the University: Towards an Ecology of Study (Bloomsbury, 2021). Currently, he is working on a book about how different ideas of the university have been enacted historically under the influence of alternative imaginations of social and technical futures. He has an interest in higher education, educational history and theory, and science and technology studies.