Why #ScienceMustFall critics are missing the point


Earlier this week, a video taken at a meeting between staff members of the UCT Science Faculty and student activists, known as Fallists, went viral. In the now infamous video, a student states that “science must fall” as she argues that science is a product of western modernity. She argues that science as we know it today must be done away with and “reimagined from an African perspective”.

The knee jerk response of most people to this video has been to laugh and dismiss the students as “stupid”. One can find multiple videos and memes on the internet mocking the students and using the video to attempt to discredit the Fallist movement and the idea of decolonization as a whole. Certainly, we can agree that a number of claims made by the student in the video are outlandish and inaccurate but the one thing that those who are laughing at the video are missing is that when you wade really think about it, there is a point to be made here.

Firstly, her statement that “science as whole is a product of western modernity” is both incorrect and indicative of why decolonizing education is so necessary. Her statement rests on the assumption that the scientific knowledge that we now have and that is taught in schools and university is a product of the west. It’s not entirely surprising that she would make this assumption; this is an assumption that people (even, ironically, many of the very people who are mocking her) often make. It could be argued that a large part of the reason this is the case is because at a school level many of us are taught often of the scientific achievements and discoveries of old white men in Europe and rarely of the scientific achievements made outside of Europe.

For example, in school, I was not taught that the origins for many scientific disciplines such as astronomy, maths, engineering, and medicine can be found in Africa. We weren’t told that some of the greatest contributions to maths and science such as the origins for surgery, algebra, optics, as well as the beginnings of the first flying machine were in the Middle East. There is a long list of scientific achievements that have been made by scientists and civilizations outside of Europe which my school’s curriculum never once mentioned, and I am certain that my school is not an anomaly. Not being taught of the scientific feats that occurred outside of Europe, especially the ones that happened in Africa, creates the impression that there were none. This I believe is a large part of the reason you will find many adults who will proudly and ignorantly state that Europeans were the ones who brought maths, science, medicine, and engineering to Africa when this could be further from the truth.

This then speaks to the necessity of decolonization in our schools and universities. It could be argued that the idea that science is a product of the west is an idea that is perpetuated by an education system that is still rooted in colonial thought. One of the aims of decolonization then should be to rethink our curriculums to meet these two goals: prioritizing Africa, particularly teaching African epistemologies and equipping students to provide solutions to African problems, and including the contributions of those who have historically been excluded. This would most certainly include the many scientific achievements made in pre-colonial African societies.

When talking about decolonization, one of the questions that is immediately asked is “well, how would you decolonize maths and science?” This is usually posed as a trick question to prove how infeasible decolonization is. Those who pose this question often make the mistake of thinking that decolonization means getting rid of all western knowledge and therefore “scratching out” all western scientific knowledge (as the student in the video stated). That’s not necessarily the case. Decolonizing science could mean teaching students about ancient African scientific advancements alongside teaching Newton’s laws. It could mean focusing on changing not the content of mathematics but the way that it is taught.

It should be noted that debates around decolonizing South African universities are not new. The now infamous “Mamdani Affair”, a scandal in which the western-centric nature of UCT and its unwillingness to Africanize its curriculum was challenged by Ugandan academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani, occured back in 1998, just 4 years after democracy. Even before then, efforts to decolonize universities were made in several other African countries shortly after they reached independence. This means that universities have bodies of work and experience from other African countries to see how decolonization at our universities could be achieved and, most importantly what a decolonized university looks like and the kinds of graduates it produces.

Rather than relentlessly mocking the students in the video, we should be asking why it is that firstly, those scientists employed in the UCT Science Faculty need a group of students to perform the creative intellectual labour that they should have been doing for the past 22 years and secondly, how can science be taught in a way that doesn’t reinforce the racist, and incorrect worldview that science is a product of the west?

Perhaps instead of jumping at the opportunity to mock and delegitimize student protesters, there needs to be a further engagement on what is being said as well as its implications.