Monday, 1 February 2016

(K)nowledge or (k)nowledges in African universities?

Amasa Ndofirepi, University of Johannesburg
The discourse of a fitting curriculum knowledge base for university education in Africa has taken centre –stage in academic and socio-political circles although sceptics and gatekeepers would always want to shut out the entry of such debates in scholarly forums. Picking up from last Thursday’s SOTL @ UJ discussion forum of the YouTube recording of Boaventura de Sousa Santos' works and my reading of his Another Knowledge is possible : beyond Northern epistemologies (2008), I acknowledge how African universities have not been spared from the remnants of irrelevance left behind by colonialism.  African universities, as institutions of higher learning and nerve centres of knowledge production and distribution, have also been dragged into the challenges of the politics of knowledge, including contestations around development, empowerment, transformation and democracy. Regrettably, governments in Africa have set up universities that have abandoned the project of dispensing new directions for the genuine emancipation and liberation of the African continent. Knowing what and knowing how in African universities have come about through studying texts might be relevant in the US or Europe but are often divorced from African experiences and priorities. What I want to make a case for is the idea of how knowing what ( as propositional knowledge ) and knowing how in current university curriculum are dictates of the prescriptions of texts that contain materials that have western origins. In other words, to know is to appreciate the contents of materials that are confirmed in western- centric texts and the reverse can also be said to be true. Put simply, African experiences currently have little contribution to make in the formulation of what true knowledge is in the African universities. A puzzle of an epistemological nature is: how should the knowledge acquisition process enlighten worthwhile dispositions and qualities that products of African universities should exhibit? Conversely, is Africanisation of knowledge in the university the most appropriate panacea to the socio-economic development challenges afflicting Africa in this era of the much celebrated neo-liberal and globalisation discourse?

 In pursuit of the foregoing, is this what recent student protests in South African universities meant when, in their Fees must fall campaign, they referred to “a lack of African content in the curriculum?” Could it be one way of speaking out against exclusionary, elite-dominated university curriculum policy makers bent to eliminate the majority from the theatre of recognition of other knowledge producers? Although some may argue that students are following blindly the politics of knowledge, dos Santos, (2004) would defend their actions as "resistance against hegemonic globalisation” which place western scientistic knowledge forms and sources on pole positions in the hierarchical knowledge pyramid. This view endorses the presence of what dos Santos refers to as the  “monocultures of knowledge" (ibid).    But are there some (K)nowledges that reign supreme above other (k)nowledges? Yet another pedestrian question could be: do university students know what they are supposed to learn and know ahead of their lecturers as the former attempt to separate the different forms and sources of knowledge? All these epistemological questions, I argue, revolve around the politics of knowledge and the puzzle of whose knowledge matters in the African university in the 21st century. I find the readings of dos Santos’ works  appropriate  to the debates revolving around the decolonisation of knowledges in the African university as long as proponents are constantly reminding themselves that Africa, as a continent and the institutions therein, are circumscribed by the global knowledge economy which is difficult to resist and shake off in the 21st century.

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