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Infinitely more Palpitating and Varied: Celebrating Working Class Scholarship

This is an excerpt from the closing remarks given by Dr. Budd Hall (Co-Chair, UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research & Social Responsibility in Higher Education) for the International Conference of Working Class Academics on July 15, 2020

Knowledge can be defined in several ways, whether it be through facts, or experiences of a person. There lie differences between the knowledge of the community and the knowledge of the academy. The life of the town, of the streets, of the social movements, of the neighbourhoods, of the land are rich, palpitating and compendious. This knowledge often remains unrecognized by the academic knowledge. One way of bringing in this variety of knowledge and these values into the higher education system is through the working class academics and students. But finding a way in for these ways of thinking is not easy.

The Western Canon of the body of Eurocentric knowledge has silenced other ways of knowing over the past 500 years and with reference to this monopolization of knowledge, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a Portuguese sociologist, says that we have experienced and continue to experience epistemicide, or the killing of other knowledge systems. His work refers specifically to the way in which Eurocentric knowledge has eliminated the diverse knowledge systems of the global South and of the Indigenous land-based peoples.

The same can be said for class-based knowledge. Historians are familiar with the idea that history is written by the victors. Feminists are familiar with the reality that history has been largely written by the men. From a class perspective, it is true that academic knowledge has largely been written by non-working class scholars. But this does not mean that all academic work written by non-working class scholars has not been useful. Both Marx and Engels came from bourgeois backgrounds. Paulo Freire the Brazilian scholar-activist who wrote the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was raised in a privileged household in Northeastern Brazil. Even Gandhi came from a privileged background. But these authors are the exception. They are to be sure intellectual allies and even very useful guides, but when one thinks about the vast body of academic knowledge, the absence of scholarship written by working class intellectuals stands out.

If knowledge making is a skill that all people possess, how is it that the power to name the world in contemporary times has been restricted to an academic elite? How has this dispossession happened?

The geographer David Harvey has provided us with the suggestion that capital accumulation and the contemporary capitalist economic system began through the processes of dispossession. Each of these acts of dispossession left the majority of people without access to land and allowed for wealth to accumulate in the hands of those who were now known as private landowners.

Along with these acts of dispossession, the establishment of medieval universities led to an act of enclosing knowledge, limiting access to knowledge and exerting a form of control over knowledge. Only a small elite were left to acquire this knowledge for purposes of leadership of a spiritual nature, of a governance nature or a cultural nature. Those within the walls became knowers; those outside the wall became non- knowers. Knowledge was removed from the land and from the relationships of those sharing the land.

Imagining an Inclusive University

If one were to envision a higher education system, one which overlooks class or caste and is truly inclusive of all individuals and all knowledge systems, then how would we imagine it to look like?

For a truly inclusive higher education institution, three themes from the conference can be narrowed down:

  • Creative Placemaking:

Place, land, location, roots are all fundamental to building a knowledge base which draws on the knowledge of everyday people for change in a community. If one acknowledges the importance of these elements then the research focus would come from the questions in the community itself, not from an academic journal.

The higher education institute will then have deep organic structural relationships with the community, with the trade union structures, the social and ecological justice organizations, Black Lives Matter and other equity movements.

  • Arts-based methods:

Knowledge democracy emphasises on the need as scholars to explore the use of the arts as a tool for knowledge making and sharing. This is because the arts allow for an integration of cognitive and affective knowing.

The inclusive university that we imagine, one where working class scholars and working class students are comfortable and supported will be a creative space where emotions and logic are never far apart and action for change is a given.

  • Curriculum:

The current knowledge base is limited for historic reasons to a Eurocentric white mostly male canon. It is limited by the exclusion of working class knowledge, knowledge of racialized communities, women, youth, the differently able and more.

Thus, the curriculum of our reimagined universities will need to be locally placed, supportive of community-driven participatory research, open to arts-based research and pedagogy and incorporating working class skills and knowledge. Skills of community-building, resilience, advocacy, solidarity, ceremony, confronting authority and more.

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