Knowledge, Wisdom and the Beauty of Imperfection

GLOBAL UNIVERSITY NETWORK FOR INNOVATION (GUNI) Conference on University Engagement 2013
Blog series, third post
Reconceptualising Knowledge 
Day 2 of the GUNI conference finished with a plenary focussed ‘Enlarging the Concept of Knowledge’. Cristina Escrigas, Jesus Granados and Francois Vallaeys held that typically we are currently using a rather chaotic form of knowledge exchange, fragmented into different disciplines and not designed for equal exchange with those outside academia. This rings true, if one considers standard academic research and publication practices.
Granados urged a rethink of the way we create and handle knowledge, and the need to move from a descriptive to a transformative model of knowledge. Further, he proposed the following 6 key propellers to get this rethink moving from:
  • the mono-culture of scientific knowledge to the ecology of knowledge;
  • rational knowledge to integral human knowledge;
  • static knowledge to knowledge for intervention;
  • discipline-bound knowledge to holistic and complex knowledge;
  • isolated knowledge for private production and consumption to social co-creation of knowledge (knowledge is not a commodity);
  • static use of knowledge to dynamic and creative use of knowledge.
Notions of Knowledge – Ancestral Wisdom
This set up a fascinating discussion between Escrigas and two respected experts Paul Wangoola, from Uganda, and Manual Ramiro Munoz from Colombia, on what is and what is not knowledge, guided by ancient and ancestral notions of knowledge.
Wangoola articulated clearly how the ancestral African conception of living knowledge, which has a common source and is a vital force for all beings, who embody its characteristics. This knowledge/awareness is distributed in all things (mineral, plant and animal), which are all thus interconnected, complementary and elemnts of a coherent whole. Since you need to be surrounded by all these carriers of knowledge – ‘every living thing is our brother and sister’ in order to benefit from this living knowledge, this belief system engenders intrinsic respect for the interdependence of man and nature.
Ramiro Munoz highlighted the similarities between the African and the Central and South American ancestral concepts of knowledge, i.e. that it is not local but universal, that healthy circulation of community knowledge (including nature’s knowledge) is akin to healthy bodily circulation and breathing.
Knowledge, said Wangoola, is the understanding of this interconnectedness. This knowledge helps us understand that the well-being of one living thing depends on the well-being of another and vice-versa. So, actually interacting positively with your neighbour is not charity but self-interest! What are the defining elements of knowledge: language and culture, according to Wangoola. Munoz observed that we know more than we understand,  and in his drive for progress, man often deludes himself by assuming decisive action is needed, where sometimes a silent co-existence can teach us more. He reminded us that knowledge is of greater value than the economic totality.
A discussion ensued about how colonisation created a new awareness of partially lost ancestral knowledge in Africa and South America, yet the indigenous keepers of knowledge still exist and we still need to learn from them. Referring to the origin of humanity, Wangoola reminded us that ‘we are all Africans’, and we need to re-learn that knowledge from the source of the Nile.
For universities, this means it is essential to link with mass forces if they are to be the stewards of knowledge, but unfortunately if knowledge is locked up within institutions, they are currently part of the problem not the solution..  Munoz reminded us that ‘university’ by its very name and nature represents the plurality of cultures, not a mono-culture.
The cracked pot story and the individual’s contribution to the knowledge society
Francois Vallaeys provided a pleasant diversion with a charming rendition in Spanish of the story of the cracked pot, which many a teacher has retold to inspire many a struggling student……
A water-bearer is carrying two pots of water in the traditional way – balanced on either side suspended from a pole across his shoulders – when he notices a crack and a leak  in one of the pots, yet he continues his work contentedly.  After a while the leaky pot, overcome with shame at its failure to contain the precious water, in contrast to the other proudly watertight pot, apologises profusely to the water-bearer for its relative inadequacy. But the water bearer reassures the leaky pot:’ look behind you and see all the beautiful flowers have grown up, only on your side of the path, where you have leaked the water’! The parable, of Asian origin, implies eloquently that we are all one way or another leaky pots, but we each bring counterbalancing attributes. The humility in this story seemed highly apposite in the context of the the nature of knowledge and the individual’s contribution to society.
Cracked pot story (image from
Lean Chan, from Malaysia, with over 30 years experience in community engagement in challenging contexts, continued the theme of the democracy of knowledge and the knowledge contribution from civil society, often not recognised by conventional science.  Knowledge is created from lived experience and from sharing personal experience; the role of story-telling, reflection and insights in social groups is a vital source of knowledge, especially for women in places where they are suppressed. HEIs need to create spaces for community scholars and for activists to develop this reflective knowledge. However, HE engagement needs to be transformative in the way such personal and community knowledge mutually enriches HE; and not succumb to the tendency to allow knowledge to be only for the use of private benefit.
Final reflections of the day included a call from Paul Wangoola for the intensification of local action and collaborative partnerships, and for more space to mother tongue scholars (e.g. if knowledge is only codified in the English language then it is dilute; a form of cultural impoverishment). Manuel Ramiro Munoz challenged the perception of/by universities of their ‘autonomy of knowledge’, and suggested that if students and staff were more immersed in the daily struggles of real people they would be better equipped to engage effectively; in summary we need affective knowledge not just cognitive knowledge.
Escrigas concluded that it is clear that universities and university staff need to transform themselves to accommodate these wider conceptions of knowledge, and she noted that ‘people change when they can see something better to aspire to’; many good practice examples and leading practitioners at the conference offered something to aspire to in this regard (see previous post).

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