Do We Care About Africa?
This article appeared in the Port Side‘s December 2012 print issue.
In his lectures on the philosophy of history in the mid 19th century, German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel made the claim European thought characterizes Africa as the “unhistorical, undeveloped spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature.” For Hegel, Africa was apolitical, residing on the threshold of the world’s history. Thanks to recent developments in travel, communication, and international relations, most of us are much less ignorant than Hegel and many of his intellectual contemporaries. With these advances and our intellectual resources here at Claremont, there is no excuse to remain ignorant on Africa in this day and age.
As a point of clarification, “Africa” here refers to the region south of the Sahara Desert, namely sub-Saharan Africa. It is a region of vast cultural and geographic diversity. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions like Botswana, Mauritius and South
Africa, most of the countries in the region share the common fate of being among the poorest and most conflict-ridden in the world. Various explanations have been provided for this unfortunate state of affairs: geography, climate, colonialism, lack of property rights, and so on.
Over the last decade, however, Africa’s economic pulse has quickened, infusing the continent with a new commercial vibrancy. Real GDP rose by 4.9 percent per year from 2000 through 2008, more than twice its pace in the 1980s and 90s. Telecommunications, banking, and retailing are flourishing. Construction is booming. Private-investment inflows are surging. Moreover, at its current rate of population growth, Africa is set to surpass both China’s and India’s populations by 2025. Even if fertility rates continue to decrease, it will not be enough to offset the significant consequences of development, namely lower rates of infant mortality and higher life expectancies.
Fast forward to the year 2100, and we can expect one in three people to be of African descent. In light of these trends, one is tempted to ask: as we progress further into the 21st century, should the Claremont
Colleges allocate more resources specifically towards the study of Africa?
Africa is a component of Western discourse that the curriculum of the Claremont Colleges continually neglects and as a consequence few courses are offered on the subject. Part of the problem is the nature of our academic institutions. Social Science and Humanities departments at small, liberal arts colleges often have to select the areas in which they wish to specialize. With its lack of importance in the international political arena, it is understandable why so little resources have been devoted to Africa in the past.
That said, the Claremont Colleges are not typical limited academic institutions. 5C students are fortunate enough to be part of the Claremont Consortium that is committed to fostering academic collaboration among its members, which lets individual colleges offer more specialization for the benefit of the other schools. Pooling resources together to bring expertise on Africa that enhances the diversity of our intellectual and educational opportunities should be an easy goal for the consortium to attain.
Study Abroad in Africa
Across the Consortium, students have shown interest in not only studying African issues, but also studying abroad in the region. At Pitzer College, students express their interest in Africa in a number of ways. From fall semester 2010 through the upcoming spring semester 2013, forty-seven Pitzer students will have studied abroad on the African continent. Pitzer College has a program in Botswana that is affiliated with the University of Botswana, in addition to an exchange with the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa.
According to the Pomona College Study
Abroad Office, in 2010, ten percent of students who studied abroad did so in Africa, compared to twelve percent in Latin America. In 2012, a similar trend was observed; study abroad programs in Africa and Asia each accounted for seven percent of total enrollment. These statistics suggest that 5C Study Abroad programs take Africa seriously, and the cities of Dakar, Nairobi and Cape Town seem to be equally as enticing to the 5C student as Tokyo, Kathmandu or Buenos Aires.
With study abroad numbers indicating a clear interest in Africa, why are there so few courses on Africa offered at the Claremont Colleges?
A Historical Bias Against Africa?
As the oldest and largest of the Claremont Colleges, it makes sense to look to Pomona’s history for some answers. Since the inauguration of Pomona’s fifth
President, Charles K. Edmunds in 1928, the college has been vocal about its commitment to East Asia. Having served earlier as president of Lingnan University in China and maintaining a deep interest in Asia, President Edmunds inspired a growing interest in Asian culture on the Pomona campus. His interests resulted in the College’s first informal study-abroad program—a group of 11 students who, in
1929, organized a year of travel and study in China and Japan—and the establishment of a brand new Department of Oriental Study, which would evolve over time into the current Asian Studies program.
Many decades later, despite various departmental expansions and a considerably larger endowment, Pomona remains explicit about its preoccupation with East
Asia. The Pacific Basin Institute (PBI), which moved to Pomona nine years ago, is a perfect example of this curricular bias.
According to its website, PBI attempts through a variety of media to present countries from the Asia/Pacific region and the United States as “interdependent parts of a vast region where technology’s spread has canceled the past isolations of geography.” The Institute has also been active in Latin American Studies programs, recognizing the importance of the South and Central American nations on the eastern Pacific, yet a chronic lack of resources dedicated to Africa has persisted.
[Students at the Claremont Colleges] see the African merely as an object of Western discourse, instead of trying to understand the continent from the perspective of Africans.
Professor Sidney Lemelle
History and Africana Studies at Pomona
Professor Sidney Lemelle, who has taught History and Africana Studies at Pomona since 1986, thinks that there is a broader issue that must be tackled: the perspective of the 5C student.
“Students at the Claremont Colleges tend to fall into the trap of taking an ethnographic view of African politics,” said Lemelle. “In other words, they see Africa merely as an object of Western discourse, instead of trying to understand the continent from the perspective of Africans,” said Lemelle.
Acting president of Pomona College Cecilia Conrad was quick to mention that the issue is not as black and white as it may seem. She noted that Africa is not the only region underrepresented in the 5C curriculum. While there is a large focus on Pacific
Basin countries, South Asian countries like India receive very little, if any, attention at all.
“We are lucky to be part of an academic consortium. We have the opportunity to do more than a stand-alone college would be able to do,” said Conrad. “However, the downside is that decision making about curriculum and the allocation of resources between colleges is often a fragmented process.”
So, what does the future hold? Can we expect the current focus to shift away from the Pacific Basin or is it here to stay? Fortunately, CUC is trying to address the imbalance of its regional focus. Six years ago, the Claremont Colleges received a grant from the Irvine Foundation to evaluate diversity of regional expertise among departments. The report found that a number of departments were having trouble finding qualified candidates with inter-disciplinary PhDs. As a result, intercollegiate departments like Chicano/Latino Studies and Africana Studies were able to reserve two faculty positions each, in order to combat the lack of diversity. Chicano/Latino Studies plans to begin its recruitment process this academic year.
Last year, Scripps and the department of Africana Studies benefited from the hiring of Professor Damian Schynder who will teach courses in Africana Studies, Africana Political Theory, Prisons and Public Education, and Ethnographic Methods. In addition, Pomona’s French department is interested in a faculty member with a Francophone specialty, which could ostensibly include courses on some French-speaking African countries.
It would appear that while there is much to be taught and learned about concerning the African experience, we must understand that change will not come in a one-size-fits-all solution. For the time being, the preoccupation with Latin American and Asian studies is here to stay, but the Consortium is cognizant of the bias and remains interested in mediating the curricular discrepancy. Unlike other liberal arts institutions that stand on their own, the Claremont Colleges have the luxury of being able to pool their resources, strategies and visions. As the world focuses its attention on Africa, interest in African issues among students will likely increase.
While the consortium is making some progress towards addressing Africa within the course offerings, students must be the catalyst. If more students show interest in Africa by taking courses, studying abroad, and engaging in dialogue with faculty and administration, we can be sure that inquiry into African issues in Claremont is meaningful, focused, and works to move beyond stereotypes.