Originally written in Dutch for Veto by Pieter Jespers, Joanna Wils & Hannah Van Canegem
Translated and edited for The Voice by Gwynne van Kaauwen
Originally published on April 4, 2020
Kalyani Unkule wants social responsibility of students towards the society in which they are educated. Because of Corona, it becomes clear that students on exchange do not have this and they return to their home country.
It started as an article, but quickly a book followed (which can now be found on Limo). The Indian professor Kalyani Unkule argues committedly for a spiritual approach of education and for more intense international exchanges. The intercultural contact should be deeper and our own ideas should be a little less rigid.
We have a habit to label the unknown as irrational. How come?
Kalyani Unkule: “A lot of students who come to India have a frame of reference, especially from Western institutions. When it doesn't meet the reality on the ground, they feel unsettled: we all have an internal resistance we're not aware of. But I want to make clear that it's a good feeling. The mere fact of something being different shouldn't incite us to make a value judgement about it. It's just good to embrace the difference.”
Do you think many Western students have some sort of a “the-west-and-the-rest-feeling?”
“At my institution they don’t necessarily feel that they come from a superior scientific tradition. I do think that there is some kind of discomfort with the day-to-day reality of living somewhere else.”
“There's not enough thinking being done about designing study-abroad-programs with regards to the issue that students are not just going to study in a new place, but they are going to live there. We have not equipped students with the right imagination and the right vocabulary to approach a different experience. Before departure, western students are tooled by the institutions who say: "Be prepared to experience culture shock. And make sure you are not rude.”
“The host society is being stereotyped. But worse: it leaves students with a mentality of difference. They will focus on all differences.”
"Studying abroad should focus on how we are all the same and not emphasize cultural difference. "
“It is therapeutic and liberating to better understand yourself through others. A good first step would be to take the negative concept of cultural thought and replace it with the more enabling idea of culture shock-therapy: shedding the baggage of your certainties. It’s therapeutic and liberating to learn about your own doings through those of others.”
Do you think Asian students feel uncomfortable when they come to Europe because the Western way of thinking is so dominant?
“They don't because we have all internalised a western view, especially in India: the battle with hegemonic discourses and ways of creating knowledge is not so much with the outside world but within ourselves. The fact that we have lived under imperial rule for more than two centuries has left such a deep seated emperor complex in our minds.”
"In India we have a hard time seeing value in our own approach"
“We are just so convinced of our inability to be original about anything, to make a contribution to the world, to do things on our own terms, to see value in the way things are done in our societies.”
You refer explicitly to the 'decolonising of knowledge' in your work. How should universities affront this challenge?
“Nowadays we use a very narrow definition of what science involves. We also see it as the only way to develop valid knowledge. That excludes diverse ways of thinking and marginalizes a lot of experiences. It amounts to a lot of loss.”
“Even within science we have become narrower and narrower: we're overspecialized. Now we're trying to get out of it by trying to become interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. Because we appreciate that the real answers for real current problems don't lie in a narrow approach of the question. No discipline or area of expertise is equipped to provide us the answers on its own. Now that we know the importance of interdisciplinarity, why don't we expand this to other ways of knowing as well?”
Do you see an evolution at universities towards this view?
“There is a lot of fundamentalism in science. Some elements of religious fundamentalism even appear: the dogmatic approach of what's right and wrong and on what we should base these decisions.”
“A lot of ecofeminists have already talked about this: science is not only a manifestation of hegemonic Western perspectives, but also an externalisation of male dominance. It's because it completely discounts things that women are socially or biologically programmed to do better, like intuition.”
“I'm not saying we should reject science or just throw it out, but I do not believe that science has all the answers.”
You explicitly opt for a spiritual approach, how does this differ from other, say more ideological views you see in science?
“Spirituality has a lot of dynamism while ideology claims truth. For example: when students in my class already know what political positions they hold onto, whether they're more left-wing or right-wing, this surprises me: How can you formulate your position on every question according to a certain lens? I personally have no problem telling you something now and say something almost incompatible 2 minutes later. Spirituality is much more free than ideology.”
“Nowadays, religion is such a tarnished word, but we shouldn't forget that there are hegemonic views in religion that masquerade as science: f.e. the way science has developed to enhance human life. It reflects the biblical view that humans are at the top of the world and that this gives them the right to exploit the natural world for their own good. I do see that science has appropriated religion according to its interests, either through cooption or through rejection.”
“Spirituality, in contrast, is a sort of unlearning. I got my degree in economics in my hometown, then I went to Delhi for a Master in social work. I got to see a part of my country and a section of society which I'd never seen growing up. It made me question all the ideas about economics that had been taught to me.”
"A spiritual approach makes room for unlearning and for dropping received notions, to be able to free yourself from conditioning."
“This is very important not just in an academic or professional sense but also in a personal sense. It happens to us all that the ideas we grew up with don't square with your experiences in your own life, so it's your choice to stick to those ideas or to admit you should rethink them.”
You say a degree shouldn't be a means to get somewhere else, what should it mean instead?
“How much time do you have? (laughs) I got my first degree in India. You don't pay anything and you don't get much. So we had to create opportunities for ourselves. Nowadays in India, as a result of privatisation of education, students are under pressure to justify the investment that they make in financial terms.”
“This also happens in the US: students know they'll carry a huge student debt when they'll graduate. That causes the 'instrumentalisation' of education, a pathway to land at a high paying job at the end. University as a financial investment. But at university you shouldn't be preparing for your first job, you're preparing yourself to still be relevant 40 years from now.”
How can a university prepare us for that?
“Finding yourself. Universities should invest more in personal development, because we in India see that education has no correlation with your level of social responsibility or commitment to society, personal wellbeing and healthy personal relationships.”
“This shows that educated people are not fundamentally contributing to society in the way we always assume them to. We're sinking a lot of resources, public and private, in something that socially delivers suboptimally and individually leads to questionable outcomes.”
You say that in the Indian education system the internationalization process has started too early and that it has lost sight of its own strengths.
“The higher education system in India was going through quite a transformation in the past few years. The one area in which we haven't invested any thoughts at all is ‘What are our strengths?’. We have become more focussed on things like rankings, as if it is some kind of ground breaking critique of the higher education system.”
“Look at what the ranking systems are based on. Look at whether that is something you want to invest in. Are we still going to be number one in the world if we play by all these rules? And the answer to that is no! Because the rules were made by those who are the best at that game. And they made the rules according to what they are good at. So nobody ever has a shot at being number one in that game.”
"It’s important to introspect on what your strengths are and how they can benefit your needs. That reflection is really important."
“Now, we've only thought about how we are going to be world-class: what we’re ending up with are students who, at the end of their academic career, end up abroad.”
Could the spiritual approach to the internationalisation of higher education create some sort of domino-effect through graduated students making the world a better place?
“A lot of our world conflicts today come from a lack of self-knowledge. So, if we would take every experience as an opportunity to hold an inner dialogue, we would have more grounded, balanced people at peace with this world.”
“I've been meditating and doing yoga for a good number of years and when I started managing a team, I discovered the benefits. I don’t make flip second decisions anymore at all. That is what being in a state of meditation has allowed me to do: to take time to process things, even when there's a provocation. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, yet the pace by which conflicts escalate can be definitely slowed down if we act more self-possessed.”
So, all world leaders should just meditate?
“Yes! Meditate all the time, that’s what self-quarantine is for! (laughs)”
This interview is based on the opinion that Unkule wrote about the corona crisis as an opportunity to redraw the current system of internationalization: University World News commentary An Opportunity to Change International Higher Education, March 2020.
She recently also wrote the following book about this: Internationalizing the University: A Spiritual Approach, Palgrave Macmillan , 2019 (on Limo ).