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How does one build a decolonised bridge?

Posted By A/Prof Debby Blaine, Friday, 27 July 2018

I first heard this question as part of the somewhat facetious reaction that many engineers have to the call to decolonise science, knowledge, engineering. But let’s go back to one of the first communities of colonisers, the ancient Greeks, and reflect on Socrates’ statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” When thinking about what I could do to transform the engineering profession into one where we can build a decolonised bridge, I paused to reflect on my classroom.

What made some students feel engaged, feel like they were firmly on their path to building their identity
as a South African engineer?

Why do some students have no problem in feeling this way, while others feel alienated or disempowered? It is so easy to dismiss students as lazy, self-entitled millenials, but the truth is
that a small percentage of matriculants gain entry into university, and engineering attracts top learners from this cohort. We have the privilege of having dedicated, determined and self-motivated young adults in our classrooms. 

So why do we lose so many of them? Educational research shows evidence, again and again, that feelings of engagement, belonging and identifying with the context and the community, are critical for successful learning. How does this relate to decolonisation? If one believes that science was invented in Europe, by white men, and that a Western knowledge-base drives all technological development, it is easy to imagine that anyone whose identity lies outside of this construct would face a significant challenge in engaging with the disciplines supported by science and technology.

A myth
One of the first myths that I interrogated relates to the history and evolution of science. Let’s start with mathematics, as it is arguably the language of engineering. The most ancient mathematical texts date back to around 2000 BC, written in Mesopotamia (situated in the area currently known as the Middle East) and Egypt. As an example of the importance of history, one of the first mathematical theories that a student will learn (long before they enter the university halls) is the Pythagorean theorem.

Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BC) was a Greek philosopher who is probably most famously known for a theorem that he did not discover. The Pythagorean triangle relationship was known to Babylonians and Indians centuries before Pythagoras was born! But Pythagoras was probably the first Greek to formally present the knowledge to the Greek communities, perhaps the first to formally set out the proof.

The revelation of “new to you” is something that anyone who has applied themselves to any study knows well. So, one of the first lessons I learnt in my endeavour to unpack colonisation and decolonisation, is that a student’s perception of what is real or true may be very far from reality or the truth.

It is, however, their current reality and I need to be aware of it. Perhaps the first step in decolonisation, is realising that much of what is assumed to be colonised knowledge is no such thing. Mathematics is not European, nor is science, nor is engineering. However, pretending that each student in my class is equal, that they enter our institutions with the same opportunities, privileges or challenges, is insanity. So how do I manage this environment of have and have-nots, of blissful ignorance and painful realities?

Where is the space in the engineering curriculum to incorporate an ethic of care, of awareness and sensitivity? Mathematics is not European, nor is science, nor is engineering.

Diversity of perspectives
Perhaps a decolonised bridge is designed by a local team of engineers who value and appreciate the diversity of perspectives that each team member brings. Perhaps one of the engineers is the daughter of one of the construction workers, the first person in her family to go to university.

Perhaps the bridge is reinforced with natural fibres, from crops grown in fields by local farmers who use sustainable agricultural practices. Maybe it provides a means of connecting a rural community to an economic hub; maybe it carries power and clean water back to this community.

Engineers are expert problem-solvers. Colonisation was a reality in our society. The effects are still evident and continue to pose problems for our society. These are all concrete facts. Let’s use the tools and knowledge available to us, and find a way to build a decolonised bridge.

A/Prof Debby Blaine
SAIMechE Council Member

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