Academics challenged to open up transformational knowledge

Academics across the globe have been challenged to open up the discussion about transformational knowledge, which includes a holistic focus on higher education systems as well as decolonisation.

As interpreters of knowledge, academics should examine how they can shape alternative ways of knowing, said Crain Soudien, professor emeritus of education and African studies and former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

He was one of a diverse range of scholars who were brought together by the Australian-based Deakin University to explore how coloniality is involved in datafication and transforming social behaviour in education and international development by applying mathematical analysis.

Coloniality is explained to mean the set of attitudes, values of knowing and power structures upheld as normative by Western colonising societies to perpetuate Western dominance.

Soudien said academics could stimulate this discussion about how they manage the space in which their organisations find themselves.

In a keynote at the online ‘Decolonising Data Summit’ earlier in April, organised by the Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training (NORRAG), Soudien said that, at present, humanity was at a difficult point in the history of civilisation and required an understanding of how it got there.

Recognising that people on the planet live in an interconnected world that determines how they behave as individuals and collectives has deep implications for the world in which humans find themselves, he said.

Quoting Catherine Hoppers, a Ugandan-born professor in development education at the University of South Africa, Soudien said that “as people, we know instinctively, that no community is complete without the other” adding that “awareness of the other opens us to the largest asset that makes us come to understand elements of ourselves, which we may not have been able to come to an understanding of by ourselves without the others ...”

To shape how knowledge can be inclusive, Soudien pointed to the work of Indian academic Professor Shiv Visvanathan who says that, like society, no knowledge is complete by itself and has all of the answers to the problems of the world.

Soudien urged that we strive to build a ‘knowledge commons’. In working towards this, we need to acknowledge that ‘commons’ is not possible without hospitality, reciprocity, generosity, plurality.

“Now knowledge is in a space where it can both look backward and look forward, grasp the full complexity of what it is about us and about the world. No knowledge is complete without accessing the dreams of the other,” he said.

Dominance in shaping knowledge

Soudien implored academics to understand how dominance works and how it gets projected in many forms. While it takes many forms in society, Soudien explained dominance as being the way meaning is constituted through the multiplication, instantiation, legitimation, institutionalisation and discursive renewal of the ideas of the powerful. This process is never singular or total, but its inclinations are in that direction, he explained.

Dominant knowledge assumed itself to be inherently ethical, Soudien said. Its positivist explanation of progress and how progress is to be managed is linear and it assumed that it is always only on an upward curve.

“But what I’m trying to argue and say here is that what this instrumentalist conceptualisation does, is to limit space for critical knowledge that disrupts and challenges the status quo in which we find ourselves and which offers us opportunities to understand the world in different kinds of ways,” he said, adding, “It is important to understand this idea of evidence, the gift of science, and particularly this hubris in this gift of science – that it is this incredible gift that it provides to us for humanity.”

Soudien argued that dominance has brought a deepening of inequality which is worsening daily.

Dominance, he added, has also led to what we must describe as the climate catastrophe. Based on narrow nationalisms, there is a defensive attempt on the part of some to blame democracy for the difficulties in which we find ourselves: “We have witnessed the retreat of the democratic state, increasing mistrust in public institutions, and individualism,” he said.

“Universities are complicit in what we are now looking at, the corporatised universities, our universities and particularly the great universities of the world – our partners and allies – promoting the interests of this dominance, and it is doing so through marketised understanding of excellence or ratings.

“The author Bill Readings describes the idea of excellence as being nothing more than the moment of technology’s self-reflection; all that is required is for activity to take place,” said Soudien.

Taking another direction

In the context of these conditions, decolonisation has come to academics as an extreme provocation, said Soudien.

“I’m not uncritical of decolonisation, but what it has alerted us to, is a sense of the ideological superstructure in which we sit, the ideological superstructure of modernity, with its logics, its metaphysics and ontologies and the accompanying power apparatus: religion, education, socialisation, propaganda, and coercion,” he said.

Decolonisation is a call to us to pause to think about where we find ourselves, he argued. “It’s asking us to confront the totalising impulses of modernity to its intention of centralising value in the European form … the idea that Europe is a final signifier of who we are, what we might be.

“Now, what decolonisation is doing, is urging us to disrupt this logocentrism. It’s not a rejection of Europe at all. It’s really important when we decide this.”

Soudien is open to the possibility that there are other ways of knowing which can teach him many things about himself, too, but decolonisation and other ways of knowing are not only at work in the social sciences.

“It is powerful in physics. What we are now learning in quantum physics is absolutely mind-blowing. It is not possible to observe an object such as a sub-atomic particle without changing and affecting the object you are observing,” he said, explaining that it is not just about decolonisation but it is about alternative ways of knowing to dominate science, which is bigger than just decolonisation.

Soudien called for strategic engagement with the monocultural space of dominance in which “we find ourselves and the constitutive rules for how the making of knowledge is being authorised, and being implemented by ourselves”.

He called for being receptive to other ways of knowing, to how they come into our spheres of sense-making, how they are measured, how data is harvested and how it can be configured in ways that help us to understand problems in more sophisticated ways.

But he also said that “... we need to be sceptical of all truth claims, wherever they come from. In terms of this, even indigenous knowledge is not without problems, and so we need to be moving towards endless relentless curiosity to understand how our knowing is constituted”.

It’s absolutely urgent, he said, that we come to understand how we use knowledge, how we measure its worth and value and how it configures how we work, how we value what is in the public domain. This understanding is fundamentally about the public good, our place in the world and our relationships with each other.

To support this approach to knowledge, Soudien said: “We need to begin to surround ourselves with people who consciously have an understanding about what we are arguing for. In terms of this we need to develop a politics of engagement about what to research, what to do with one’s research, where to publish, why we want to publish … where we publish.”