Ismail Lagardien: Who guards the guardians?

Ismail LagardienI have been doing some reading on “the idea of the university” since August, the month or so before higher education in South Africa entered what may turn out to be epoch-defining change. Part of this reading has been on “ownership” of bodies of knowledge.

I have been especially concerned about the way this ownership, or guardianship, of particular bodies of knowledge came with the right to arrange, present, licence and certify a set of ideas, beliefs, values, agreed principles and practices – and place particular bodies of knowledge beyond critical scrutiny.

Initially, I was interested in the ways that immutable “laws” and the belief in the eternal validity of particular theories shaped orthodoxy in economics. This inquiry led me to some rather revealing discoveries about how higher learning has been manipulated for social and political agendas in South Africa over many years. More on this at another time . . . As it goes, the beauty of constantly probing at the boundaries of what is conventional or acceptable makes for wonderful little (and large) discoveries. It is certainly true that very many of humanity’s greatest discoveries have emerged from accidents, intuition or serendipity.

Actual thinking and asking the hard questions (and a fair amount of anarchy and heresy, I would guess) does more for the advancement of the natural or social sciences than bodies of knowledge.

I certainly cannot claim any major life-changing discoveries, but my reading has re-affirmed two things. The one is that institutions of higher learning are a reflection of the society in which they exist.

The opposite is, of course, also true and this is rarely an accident. I wrote about this briefly a few weeks ago and there is no need to repeat it now.

The other is that no single person or a group of people can or should be allowed to curate or guard a particular body of knowledge. Nobody may be allowed to own and dispense bodies of knowledge as if they were material possessions.

This can lead to what is decried as “the commodification of education”. In other words, there is a fundamental difference between a pair of shoes and education.

To be sure, knowledge is the cynosure of the common good.

Anyway, one danger, when there is the presumption that one group of people has the sole right to pronounce on a topic, as part of a class of “experts”, is that clubs tend to form. This transformation of knowledge as a club good is a danger to the idea of knowledge in the common (or public) good.

At the extremes, it drives education away from its functions of the pursuit of knowledge, for its intrinsic value, and its service to a broader social purpose. In this way, then, institutions of higher learning may, for instance, drive for higher rankings with competitors, at the expense of students, communities, individuals, companies and industries – what we call the real world.

This does not mean that universities should not produce new knowledge. Research, and finding new concepts and methods are what drives good teaching and learning.

It does, however, mean that there can be no belief in the fixity of a particular body of knowledge and that this knowledge belongs to one group.

Within universities, too, the belief in the “ownership” of bodies of knowledge can mean that there is little to no teaching and learning, and knowledge production across parts of universities. Curators of particular bodies of knowledge working in silos indulge in what Stephen van Evera of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology referred to as a “cult of the irrelevant”.

“Disciplinary silos,” Van Evera wrote, “are largely treated as sacrosanct, to remain forever unchanged because they never have been changed. [This dates] from the founding of social science in the late 1800s . . .

“Whether or not these silos were ever functional, they are not functional today. They now serve chiefly to inhibit cooperation among scholars from related fields who have much to teach each other and should be working together. They are impediments to invention and progress.”

And so, as this year’s students complete their exams in the coming weeks and we reflect on the past several months, we will, also, start envisaging the future of our higher education in South Africa. One good question to help us along would be this: if there are guardians of particular bodies of knowledge, then who guards the guardians?

  • Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU.

Leave a Reply