Knowledge reproduction: The value of criticism

Should we teach university students to be critical of the nation and society?

THERE seems to be a natural fear of criticisms. At the same time, we evoke the rhetoric upon our society — the public, teachers and pupils in the school system, and scholars and students in the universities — to be critical. And, of course, a critical opposition in our political culture. And journalists to be critical of.

Some years ago when I was teaching journalism, there were occasions when colleagues posed the question: “Should we teach journalism students to be critical of journalism itself — as a profession, as an institution and as a vocation?” The answer is if students of journalism are critical of the practice, they will not be able to function as a journalist. There will be too many questions to ask and reflect on themselves and their role in society and the nation.

On the other hand, should we teach university students to be critical of the nation and society? The rhetoric would be a “yes”. But have we? Even our academics give lip service to being critical. And at another level, many are territorial and avoid criticisms of their own fields and academic disciplines. Assumptions, concepts, theories and methodologies in their fields are taken as a given, perhaps descending from heaven and must not be desacralised. The turf is sacred.

Dissent is frowned upon and delegitimised. While rummaging through books and papers in my cluttered library at home, I chanced upon a publication. The Dissenting Knowledge Pamphlet Series has been around for more than a decade since 2004. The bad news is that the publication has been poorly circulated and not consumed by those who should. The series, published by Citizens International in Pulau Pinang and Multiversity in Goa, India, from 2005, “seeks to furnish intellectuals, scholars, activists and serious readers, and especially those who rebel at the idea that the university should be the sole site of the life of the mind, with a more public and accessible forum of informed and dissenting opinion than is customarily available through scholarly monographs and learned journals,” said New Delhi-based scholar Vinay Lal, its founding editor.

The Forward was for series no. 9 titled Ignorance and the Durability of Religion: A Parable by James Carse, Emeritus Professor of Religion at New York University. Lal’s Forward referred to how we have reconstructed religion in a template informed by the early modern history of Western Europe, specifically Protestant Christianity. In context, it was a critique on globalisation and essentially a plea to recognise that what had been effectively affected are our knowledge production systems. Our universities should assume their institutional obligations as knowledge production systems, and our academics should see themselves as integral to the system. But which system? And what knowledge?

This is where being critical comes in. The knowledge production system that we are operating within — transmit, construct and theorise — is issued forth from a crucible that was to dominate, colonise and determine our worldview. In the modern guise of globalisation, it has captured and monopolised our imagination.

The Forward, in emphasising the ramifications of globalisation, looked at history as the principle determinant in regimes of colonialism, which some of us, and all of our forefathers, lived in for a few hundred years. We see the world, as I have repeatedly said in my earlier writings, from the prism of the West. We understand the world as we know today almost entirely through categories that are largely the product of Western knowledge systems and the academic disciplines. These have been charged with codifying, disciplining, organising, institutionalising and transmitting knowledge, not only about our physical and material world, but also about our various social, scientific, cultural, political, economic, religious and legal institutions and practices.

We have not broken our (false) consciousness. Within a knowledge-producing environment, being critical necessarily has political and epistemological consequences. And this means decolonising our academic disciplines. What we are engaged in as teachers and researchers of our “territory” was established and formalised against a past that later came to dominate us in their own image. The subjugation of the other, peoples of non-white and coloured races, has been accepted with a benign posture by our society and academic fraternity.

After almost 61 years of Independence, our universities and academics are still captive. We consume the great game of colonialism, in absolute awe of the European Enlightenment’s categories. We ignore Europe’s claim to universalism and are oblivious of the resulting extinction of our lifestyle, culture and knowledge. And so we respond with our category of what we have termed as “local knowledge”. But is this “local knowledge” that we have inadvertently and falsely celebrated — as to its sociological, historical and epistemological foundations — an adjunct to the mainstream knowledge production system? Thus far, local knowledge has been associated with the non-western, described condescendingly as ethnic, or tribal, and not within the geopolitics of the Western world. Is Europe not also local? Must “local knowledge” remain and assumed to be local, and is the past and not universal, as Europe and the west have constructed their beliefs and society to be? Colonialism has obscured a common, and often intellectual awareness of our histories.

The pamphlet series is part of the initiative to create an awareness and a consciousness amongst academics, scholars and the intelligent conscious public. It, of course, can come in many forms and platforms viz the integration with digital technologies and used in the social media. The social history of pamphlets, seen in the modern period, has led to consciousness and the democratisation of knowing. The concern is that our campuses develop an uncritical stance in the teaching and learning process. Our slogan of democratising higher education contradicts the democratisation of knowing and consciousness.

By A Murad Merican.

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