Monday, December 24, 2012

Decolonizing the University

I have been thinking alot lately about decolonization and the University of Guam. This was one of the primary reasons that I decided to leave island and go off and obtain a Ph.D. So that eventually I could return one day and teach at UOG and help transform the university from an institutional that began with a colonial function, but need not continue to perform it. This is something that is not unique to UOG, but rather something that nearly all educational institutions on Guam participated in for the past few centuries. It is a truism of education today that learning takes place through a movement from that which is familiar to that which is unfamiliar. In order for concepts and ideas to take hold you must first associate it with something familiar and then later can associate with things unfamiliar. This is the most efficient way of learning. To skip the familiar stage can create significant gaps of understanding and also feelings of alienation.

UOG in recent years has taken more steps in order to incorporate this basic aspect of learning into their curriculum. Often times it is at the level of choices of individual faculty, but it is a significant improvement over the way the university operated in the past. Decolonizing the University of Guam could mean a wide range of interventions or reforms, but what I want to focus on today, are some ideas that are simple and broad and things that I feel no one should truly be against in terms of charting the future course for UOG.

I've listed three possible ways to think about decolonizing UOG below. They are political status change,  Chamorro Studies and clear-eyed regionalism. The writing is rambling and probably full of typos and other mistakes.

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Political Status Change: The political status of Guam is something that affects almost every aspect of the island. This is something that many people do not perceive in their daily lives, but that impact is there nonetheless. As something that is so significant and far reaching, something that affects the community around the university so much, it is something that the university should take seriously in terms of the way it engages with the community. The University of Guam is looked to as a place of enlightenment, a place of validation and a place of knowledge. The research conducted there, the professors that teach there, the projects that it takes on, are interpreted as being more legitimate and more credible because they come from Micronesia's largest institute of higher learning.

The Government of Guam, in particular under the previous Governor, has shown an inability to take the issue of Guam's political status seriously. The current Governor has shown some interest in taking up the rhetoric of decolonization, but there has been little substance to this yet, save for a handful of meetings.

The University of Guam can fill the void that the Government of Guam has left. I do not say this in terms of advocacy, or taking up the cause of a certain political status. Instead I would argue that the University of Guam should take up the issue in terms of its expertise. Should the University of Guam develop some sort of institute or program related to self-determination in a broad sense, it could be a means for focusing the varied talents and skills of its faculty in a way that helps enlighten the community of this pressing issue.

The discourse on self-determination and political status change is often caricatured as being the talk of activists and not connected to concrete and real things. This is hardly true. Self-determination discourse deals with economy, environment, education, politics, sustainability and so many other topics.

Chamorro Studies: As an educational system initially created to bar the value from the native or the local, a standard and necessary intervention is to not only allow value to be articulated with the local, but also to elevate and promote it as well. For centuries people on Guam operated under colonial logic in terms of what Guam and Chamorros might offer the world. Guam as a small, faraway island. The Chamorro people themselves were small, heavily scarred by colonialism, lacking any cultural purity or inherent modernity. As a result, this place and its people were seen in terms of knowledge, in terms of education to offer nothing. Education must be a shaping of the local so that it matches what we find elsewhere.

Things have changed significantly since the days when the University of Guam was first founded. When we look at the world of academia today and what the University of Guam has to offer, we can see clearly that the old colonial logic isn't as powerful as it once was. As an institute of higher education there are many aspects of UOG that will be similar to other colleges and universities. In these terms, there are few ways that UOG can excel or be unique. It is unlikely that the University of Guam will one day be the premiere institution for English or Psychology or Art or many other programs it currently has. There is far too much competition for these types of programs and it would incredibly difficult to try to pursue such a thing.

A clear eyed analysis of what UOG has to offer the world that few others can is a very important part of reimagining the university and potentially decolonizing it. What is it that UOG can do that no other University in the region, in the US, in Asia, in the world can do? At the top of that list is "Chamorro Studies" and that UOG with its recently created program in Chamorro Studies can easily be the premiere institution for all things related to the study of Chamorros, their history, language and culture.

For linguists, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists and other academics both Guam and Chamorros have intriguing and complex histories. A site of historical and contemporary colonization. A site of intense historical and contemporary militarization. A site of historical cultural eradication and contemporary revitalization. A site of historical language endurance and resistance to colonial pressures and a contemporary site for swift and merciless language loss. Outreach related to these issues, studies of these issues could all be potentially situated or coordinated through the University of Guam. In terms of funding related to these issues, UOG would be the natural choice for grants and other programs.

The University of Guam taking up the task of Chamorro Studies also relates to its relationship to the community around it. As we transform the University in order to reflect more of the region and the island that surrounds it, this means engaging more concretely with the Chamorro community, and not just as a location for the educating of Chamorros, but rather a site for the legitimization and the study of their knowledge, history and culture. UOG is already seen as a location for the learning of the Chamorro language and the learning of Guam History. We need only build upon this credibility and assert that UOG be a place where Chamorro Studies can be promoted. This can help lead to feelings of ownership over UOG that will in the long run help the community feel a greater sense of ownership and possibly affinity.

Clear-Eyed Regionalism: Colonies are always forced into seeing themselves as minor versions of the colonizer and what he is supposed to represent. This mimesis is always a failed project due to the fact that while the colonizer may advocate that their way is the best way, they rarely ever want the colonized to actually achieve success, much less surpass their example.

As a result of this, the future is never open or free. It is instead a path that is meant to follow that which the colonizer has always accomplished and laid out. Colonies always feel trapped, forced to follow in the shadow and cherish the example that their colonizer represents, and as a result often times develop themselves in ways that are not consistent with their resources or their realities.

As part of the Great University of Guam Conversations, President Underwood showed a picture of current and former leaders of the islands that surround Micronesia, all of whom had attended the University of Guam. In somber tones Underwood informed everyone that this image will most likely never happen again, as China is investing more and more in the Micronesia islands and it is likely that the future leaders of Micronesia will be educated in China instead of Guam. This was a sobering thought, since in a colonial context, we might assume that since UOG is representative of US education in Guam, and Guam is the closest thing to being American in the Western Pacific, everyone would simply gravitate there.

This is part of the contradiction of colonies. That while you feel like you may have some extra value through your association with the colonizer, this value may make you feel stronger or more stable than you truly are. It is because of the way your gaze does not look directly at the world or island around you. Instead your gaze travels to the colonizer and you look back at yourself through his assumed gaze. So while you can gain extra value that may not have anything to do with what you truly have (because you are an appendage of the colonizer), it also means that you will perceive the value for what you do or do not have through the ideology of the colonizer.

Guam sits at the center of Asia and the Pacific. It has long been thought of in strictly colonial terms as a gateway to the United States for those in Asia. In truth this is only part of its existence. It is also a gateway for the United States to Asia. A transit point for the Pacific and Oceania. Guam has long been a crossroads for so much.

Despite all these connections, despite this international existence to the island, Guam tends to see itself first and foremost through an American lens. It looks to the United States first, and then to the world around it second. Its relationship to the other islanders in Micronesia. Its relationship to Asia nations are all mitigated by the colonial imaginings of the island.

Decolonization need not only be a introspective intervention, but it can also be a re-imagining of the relationships that Guam has with those around it. Because of both its political status and its location in the world, it is not in Guam’s interest to only see things the American way and to only plan itself as such. This is always the answer in short terms, because the connections to the United States already exist and things such as funding and media already flow towards Guam. Other connections may appear to be more delicate and less secure, but in the long run they could be more beneficial. 

Guam should not think of itself solely as "America in Asia" or "Where America's Day Begins!" In colonial terms people on Guam invoke these slogans in order to overcome the political and geographical gap between the US and Guam. They try to assert that Guam is truly a part of the United States. These slogans are true and so my issue with them is not their veracity, but rather that they sell Guam short. Guam can be so much more than just a fragment of the United States in the middle of an ocean.

This sort of existence is not possible in a colonial context. The dependency that is a part of every colonial relationship will make this sort of destiny for the island feel impossible, and make it feel as it Guam should simply remain in the shadow of the US and take what it is fortunate enough to receive and seek nothing more. This is why decolonization in the way that I have discussed in this talk is not so much about specific plans or actions. It is instead creating the ability to see the world in a way that would benefit you and your island first. It is about clearing your eyes and your mind so that you can see what sort of possibilities wait around you. Some of them may be connected to the colonizer, some of them elsewhere. But decolonization is meant to give you that simple ability to choose, that simple ability to decide that this will be beneficial, while this should not be retained.


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