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University of Basel

Research in the Spirit of Sustainability (01/2015)

“With Europe in our backpack, Africa as a sparring partner, the world in our sights.”

Antonio Loprieno

Africa at a European university.

The university as we know it is an eminently European institution – not in the sense, of course, that there are no universities on other continents, or that European universities are better, more authentic or more open than their American or Asian counterparts, as even a cursory glance at the many empirical measures available makes clear, but because the particular form of accessing knowledge that we associate with universities is the product of three successive cultural breaks in the history of Europe. The first, which led to the establishment of the medieval university as a theological school, was brought about by the integration of Aristotelian philosophy into Christian scholasticism. The second took place during the early modern period, when humanists divided up knowledge into categories largely equivalent to our modern faculties or disciplines, geared towards the training of social elites (judges, clerics, doctors, writers etc). Finally, the Enlightenment led to the third break, between ideological and scientific knowledge, providing the template for the modern university. Although the university’s constituent elements clearly have their origins in the social and intellectual history of Europe, the resulting product has proved so attractive that it has been taken up – particularly in its Anglo-Saxon variant – by knowledge traditions in Africa and Asia based on very different cultural assumptions.

A university like ours is, therefore, part and parcel of European intellectual history. But does that require us to approach other knowledge traditions from a eurocentric perspective? In one sense, a Swiss university is inescapably eurocentric, as our academic institutions’ financial dependence on the cantons leads them to emphasize local concerns, perhaps to an even greater extent than universities in other European countries. At the same time, Swiss universities are at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness of the diversity of human experience in terms of history, economics and scholar ship. Globalization presents a challenge to the university, as the prototypical site of knowledge production. Should traditional curricula be adapted to reflect the change arising from globalization, or ought we instead to promote our own concept of knowledge and scholarship in other regions of the world that are of scholarly, social or economic interest to us?

The right prescription probably involves a balanced combination of the two. Classically, the orientalist method was the approach favored for the study of foreign traditions at the Humboldtian university. This involves applying European interpretative categories to the high culture of a foreign civilization (either ancient or contemporary) so that it can be integrated into the canon of university disciplines. Examples include Islamic studies, a discipline that codifies the cultural characteristics of (mainly historical) Islam so that they can be studied, and Sinology, a subject involving the academic study of the literature, language and religion (again mainly historical) of East Asia. The paradigmatic example of this approach, at the interface between eurocentrism and xenophilia, is Egyptology, which enjoys a particularly high profile at our university.

However, as a corollary of the loss of ideological supremacy by Europe and North America, the orientalist method has lost its hegemonic control over how foreign cultures are interpreted. On the one hand, we cannot escape the all-encompassing demands of an academic community that is becoming ever more global, including the increasing use of (pseudo-)English as the lingua franca of scholarship. At the same time, with the partial removal of local conventions, we have a unique opportunity to make our university’s voice heard – and indirectly, but no less clearly, to articulate the academic and ideological concepts and values we stand for – in a globalized world. But that world is very big. We have to start somewhere, especially in an academic culture that prioritizes competition and innovation. For the University of Basel, the continent of Africa presents almost a natural choice, particularly given that the only orientalist discipline represented here, Egyptology, deals with the study of an ancient African culture. We have no wish to shut ourselves off from the great countries and cultures of Asia, given their huge importance on a global level; here, too – as in the case of China – we can benefit from the internationalization of scholarship and seek to raise the profile of our university, its values and its achievements. However, Africa is at the center of our efforts to make Basel a university with a global reach.

Aside from its focus on ancient Egypt, our university has already built up a variety of scholarly links with Africa, which can be traced back to different historic forms of engagement with the continent. In theology, for instance, the field known previously as missionary theology – now termed Christianity in Africa – which looks at the impact on religious values of contacts between Europe and Africa, has its roots in the pietistic plans of the Basel missionary movement. In the social sciences, ethnology and – thanks to its strong links with foundations or collections – African studies have established themselves as explicitly non-eurocentric disciplines. The end result was the designation of our university as a suitable ‘leading house’ for the national coordination of research projects with South Africa. Of vital importance in this regard – and for the success of research collaboration with a number of different African countries – was and is our close relationship with the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, which serves as a beacon of excellence globally for the university in science and medicine. Finally, this fertile mix of historical continuity and scholarly innovation has given rise to a close and intensive partnership with the University of Cape Town in the field of urban studies – perhaps the most visible sign of our sustained engagement on the global stage.

With Europe in our backpack, Africa as a sparring partner, the world in our sights, we seek to offer our researchers and students the scope for impact that is appropriate to the times, to enable them to keep on negotiating and internalizing the difficult but unavoidable compromise between the local, which supports us, and the global, which we support.

With Europe in our backpack, Africa as a sparring partner, the world in our sights, we seek to offer our researchers and students the scope for impact that is appropriate to the times, to enable them to keep on negotiating and internalizing the difficult but unavoidable compromise between the local, which supports us, and the global, which we support.

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