For all of us, it would be worth the while to ‘take the best and leave the rest’ from all cultures and transform that into a working paradigm for our common future
It is not something that we knowingly thought of when we were attending primary and secondary school, but there was a western bias in our education which was both overt and subtle. Given that we had been colonized by European powers, it was quite natural that they would implement their system of education from the organizational standpoint as well as regards to the contents of the curriculum. This was of course deliberate but one cannot impute a malicious intention to the then authorities – unlike the ‘Macaulayism’ that was imposed in India which was designed in the main to deculturize and inferiorize the Indian population.
As far as we are concerned, they had to impart an education, and there was no alternative than to setting up a local version of what obtained in their own countries. In our case it was the British system that prevailed and that continues to be the predominant model. Overall it has been a beneficial one to all those who went through it, allowing them to pursue profession and career.
We developed proficiency in two international languages, French and English, although with the introduction of Creole and its creeping use as a medium of instruction — even by tertiary level staff! – we are placing the present and coming generations at risk of an erosion of this comparative advantage of what I would like to call our ‘core “international” bilingualism’. Whether we like it or not, English is the most global language and the favoured one for scientific publications, the internet, air traffic control and a host of other applications.
If we want to play the ostrich, and hypocritically at that – for many of the most vociferous votaries of Creole speak French to their children, being fully aware that Creole will not take them far – this does not augur well for the already abysmal standard of the English language in Mauritius, as revealed by the successive reports of the Cambridge examiners about examinations that Cambridge conducts here.
As we matured in years and progressed to higher levels in secondary school we came to not only appreciate but also derive pleasure from our forays into English and French literature, in particular their poetry for those of us so inclined. We became familiar with famous authors from these traditions, foremost among whom in English was Shakespeare. To this day his works are studied by those doing literature.
However, this process of inculcation started even at primary school level, when we learned nursery rhymes and songs belonging to the French and English traditions, and our textbooks contained exclusively stories and anecdotes from these same sources too. Later in college, it was European history that we were taught, beginning with Greek and Roman history in the lower forms.
This was all very well, and we never have had any regrets about all that we have learnt, which in fact broadened our span of knowledge. However, although the system did not openly convey this message, yet it was almost implied that there was no other or better way of looking at and analyzing the world than through the western, Eurocentric or Greco-Roman frame of reference within which our education was conducted.
An additional dimension which was present was the religious one. I experienced it at primary school level, since I attended a Church of England Aided School in Curepipe Road, which later became the Hugh Otter Barry Government School. From ‘below’ all pupils, including the non-Christian ones, were made to recite ‘Our father in heaven, hallowed be thy name’…, and we had catechism classes as well.
And during the August holidays, there was a week-long slide projection of the Bible story in the school in the evening, which we were expected to and did attend with our families, with Bishop Hugh Otter Barry himself being present on a few evenings to elaborate on the slides. He was a very kindly person as I remember, and we kids cozied up to him, blissfully oblivious of the monster of paedophilia that would surface among the Church clergy many decades later.
Further, from time to time, we were referred to as paiens, pagans. It was only after that I came to know that this was a derogatory term applied to those who were not Christians, and whose religion was regarded as inferior. This perception applied as well to their religious practices and other customs, such as eating directly with the hands or not eating pork and beef. It was as if food had no value if it was not eaten in a ceramic plate or with fork, spoon and knife.
All practices other than the western ones were looked upon as ‘exotic’. Indeed, isn’t exoticism a contemporary attractive touristic label? Nowadays another qualifier has been added: ethnic. What is the norm, natural for a non-westerner, is exotic or ethnic for the westerner. But if we want to be truly objective, using the same western standard, then from the non-westerner point of view shouldn’t we similarly consider all western customs as being exotic or ethnic?
In fairness, therefore, there may be some rationale in all of us, western and non-western alike, following the proverb ‘when in Rome do as Romans do’, within limits of course, and leave it at that, that is, not be judgemental.
The good thing is that Western thinkers themselves (such as Fritjof Capra of The Tao of Physics fame and those associated with the deep ecology movement) have now recognised that this approach, which they have named ‘exclusivist’, is no longer adequate to understand or explain the complexities of the world, and that there are alternative ways of doing so, the more inclusivist or plural/holistic approach. Interestingly, far from denying or disregarding the western paradigm, it makes place for the latter too. This is especially true when it comes to the physical world, where the western scientific approach has proved to be of universal application, and whose technological fallouts are of use and benefit to all the peoples of the world. We would be untrue to ourselves if we denied this fact.
However, where culture, philosophy and spiritual matters are concerned, the West cannot claim any exclusivity or superiority, for there are equally sound and valid frames of reference that guide the lives of hundreds of millions of peoples belonging to the older civilisations of the East. These approaches transcend the Cartesian duality perspective which is encapsulated in the well-known saying of Descartes, ‘Je pense, donc je suis’. Scientists researching the nature of Ultimate Reality are closing up to the more plausible ‘Je suis, donc je pense’ paradigm which has been the basis of the inclusivist view of the world.
This millennial wisdom is genuinely universalist, and it contains truths which can potentially be the beacons for mankind’s sustainable future, which primarily is premised on such an inclusivist culture. For all of us, it would be worth the while to ‘take the best and leave the rest’ from all cultures and transform that into a working paradigm for our common future.