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Teaching for Epistemic Justice in a Post-truth World

by Kathy Luckett

In Teaching in Higher Education’s recent special issue on ‘Experts, Knowledge and Criticality’ (2019) we noted in the editorial that traditional forms of expertise and epistemic authority are under threat. In his subsequent blog, Harrison warned: “Higher education is in danger of sleep walking into a crisis”.

In this post-truth era it is useful to be reminded of Castells’ (1996, 2010) warnings about the crumbling of liberal democratic institutions, which he predicted would become ‘empty shells’, devoid of power and meaning in the ‘information age’ (2010:353). As early as 1996 he warned that the ‘network society’ would bypass the rationalising influence of civil society institutions (include here institutions of higher education). Castells also predicted a related loss of influence for the old ‘legitimising identities’ based on roles located in civil society institutions – such as those of experts and academics in universities and research institutes. The information and communication technologies of the fourth industrial revolution have huge potential to democratise flows of information in open spaces on the web and strengthen civil society, but Castells’ corpus shows how this ‘communication power’ is caught in the contradictions of the global capitalist market. Nation states have limited power to regulate information flows on behalf of their citizens, while control of communication power now rests in the hands of global corporations such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and Apple which are driven by market rather than democratic logics.

At a cultural level, individuals’ access to mass communication via social media has led to ‘communicative autonomy’ and the emergence of radical forms of individualism which undermine older identities based on tradition or citizenship of sovereign nation states (Castells 2010, 2012). Despite the decline of these older forms of solidarity, those individuals who participate in the wealth and power of the global economy feel recognised and included in society, but those who do not feel excluded and misrecognised. Because the latter groups no longer feel (or never were) included as full citizens of civil society, they are taking up ‘resistance identities’ put out on social media. Resistance identities are invariably based on subordinated groups’ sense of misrecognition and exclusion from the mainstream and tap into axiologically charged ‘structures of feeling’ (Rizvi, 2006:196).  In some cases, the construction of resistance identities draws on fundamentalist or essentialist notions of culture, ethnicity, religion or place. More generally, resistance identities create a sense of belonging by appealing to individual attributes, authentic experience and/or personal pain and trauma. On social media these attributes become reified as new cultural codes, captured in new images of representation and commodified for display. Castells (2010) describes these as closed fragmented identities that fail to connect or transcend into broader forms of human solidarity.

This analysis by Castells is useful for thinking about the recent student protests on South African campuses (2015-2017). Student activists in the #RMF (RhodesMustFall) and #FMF (FeesMustFall) movements creatively used multi-media platforms to spread their message, organise protests and perform their politics, creating new anti-establishment resistance identities and cultural codes. In a post-settler society such as South Africa, where identities remain highly ‘raced’, the contradictions of global capital alluded to above are played out through a race-based identity politics that pits ‘blackness’ against ‘whiteness’. Undoubtedly the assertion of ‘blackness’ by black students and staff, particularly on historically white campuses, was a consequence of their continued misrecognition and exclusion by the ‘whiteness’ of institutional cultures and practices, a generation after South Africa’s political transition (the long shadow of ‘coloniality’). In such neo-colonial contexts, the frustration and anger of black students from poor homes and schools is exacerbated by their continued exclusion from academic success and from the promise of employment in the global economy and the relief from poverty that this guarantees. What also became apparent during the protests was the students’ rejection and dismissal of authority based on the old ‘legitimising’ identities of civil society – such as those of university executives, senior managers, academics and government officials.

In such post-truth contexts where the liberal democratic order is dissipating and our own roles and identities are no longer naturally legitimate, the challenge for academics is how to connect with our students and teach in ways that address their concerns and issues. I suggest this means teaching for epistemic justice. What does this mean?

In the editorial for the special issue (Harrison and Luckett, 2019) we argued that we should work with the destabilisation of modern epistemology and its problematic blindness about the relationship between power and reason. We noted the capacity of digital technologies to open up previously protected boundaries around knowledge production – to include historically excluded and silenced knowers and their ways of knowing. However, we also advocated that we teach our students how to use the epistemic rules, criteria and norms developed by expert communities of practice for validating truth claims. The promotion of epistemic justice involves showing students how to move beyond naïve scepticism and judgmental relativism about truth claims and how to become active and critical participants in processes of knowledge production. The articles in the special issue include creative ideas and strategies on how to give students the tools to judge truth claims for themselves.

I believe the degree to which the academy is prepared to work at promoting epistemic justice – not only on campuses but also on digital platforms – will be reflected in our students’ capacity to judge old and new truth claims for themselves. The achievement of greater epistemic justice in curricula and pedagogy in higher education institutions could empower students to refuse capture by the communicative and axiological power of closed, potentially authoritarian forms of resistance identities. Social and epistemic justice entails the freedom to choose to dis-identify from fixed social identities and encouraging students to work with identity as a process of becoming who they hope to become in a complex heterogeneous public sphere.

Here are a few questions for further reflection:

  • What are the implications for our teaching of the fact that students are highly ‘mediatised’ and may not recognise our expertise and authority as legitimate?
  • When students take up resistance identities do we acknowledge that this is invariably a consequence of their feeling misrecognised and excluded?
  • To what extent do our institutional policies that claim to address equity, access, diversity and inclusion, assume assimilation and compliance? To what extent do they challenge given hierarchies of power and unequal patterns of participation in the academic project?
  • Do we articulate for students our own social and historical locations, acknowledging their political salience for our academic work?
  • In our curriculum development, how far is it possible to challenge the hegemonic grip of the North over knowledge production? Do we, wherever possible, promote a ‘pluriversal’ approach to knowledge that includes making space for new cultural codes, new knowers and alternative ways of knowing?
  • Do we teach students to critically historicise and contextualise the development of the modern disciplines and thus question false claims to universality?

Kathy Luckett is the Director of the Humanities Education Development Unit and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is a member of the Review Board for Teaching in Higher Education.

References

Castells, M (1996) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The Rise of the Network Society Volume I Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Castells, M (2009) Communication Power Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Castells, M (2010) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The Power of Identity. Volume II (2nd edn) Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Castells, M (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age Cambridge: Polity Press

Harrison, N and Luckett, K (2019) ‘Experts, knowledge and criticality in the age of ‘alternative facts’: re-examining the contribution of higher education’, Teaching in Higher Education 24 (3): 259-271

Rizvi, F (2006) ‘Imagination and the Globalisation of Educational Policy Research’ Globalisation, Societies and Education 4(2): 193-205  


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Pedagogic rights and higher expertise in the post-truth society

by Jim Hordern

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

Bernstein’s three pedagogic rights (enhancement, participation, inclusion) set out the ‘conditions for effective democracy’ (in discourse and practice) at the ‘individual’, ‘social’ and ‘political’ level (Bernstein, 2000: xxi). Developed as a reflection on political transition in Chile in the 1980s and remaining to an extent ‘enigmatic’ (Frandji and Vitale, 2016), the rights have recently been employed to discuss the South African higher education context (Luckett and Naicker, 2016) and the role of universities in human development and capability expansion (McClean et al, 2013). Consideration of the relationship between the three pedagogic rights aids reflection on the role of higher expertise in contemporary societies facing ‘post-truth’ challenges. If fully exercised the pedagogic rights could mitigate against the destructive potential of ‘alternative facts’ – but does the current context of higher education allow the rights to be exercised?

The right to ‘individual enhancement’ is described as a ‘a condition for experiencing boundaries’ and ‘tension points condensing the past and opening up possible futures’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx). This is the process whereby individuals acquire expertise through engagement in higher education, and become equipped for future thought and action. The right to enhancement assumes the existence of expert communities that can judge when boundaries and tensions have been experienced and enhancement has taken place, as part of a trajectory towards greater expertise and understanding (Winch, 2010). However, the process by which enhancement occurs is not static but rests on the potential for imagining ‘new possibilities’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx). As Luckett and Naicker point out, this is the right ‘that realises both the private and public goods of HE’ (2016: 12). However, it is heavily compromised without the other two rights (participation and inclusion). If higher education is only concerned with individual enhancement rather than ensuring all have the right to participate and to be included, then there is a risk not only that the most powerful individuals will dominate access to expertise, but also that expertise itself becomes increasingly moribund and irrelevant to contemporary society.

The right to participate means participation in the ‘procedures whereby order is constructed, maintained and changed’ (Bernstein, 2000: xxi). This extends to participation in the re-shaping of expertise to meet new requirements as societies change, while not losing the condensed lessons of the past. Participation is the condition for ‘civic practice’ (ibid: xxi), and affects the extent to which an expert body of knowledge maintains or loses relevance to contemporary concerns. A fully democratic society is founded on a right not only to access expertise but also to become an expert oneself. When participation becomes problematic democracy starts to break down, leading to increasing alienation from expertise and the potential for mistrust of the ‘experts’ themselves.

Lastly, the right to inclusion suggests ‘the right to be included, socially, intellectually, culturally and personally’, but also ‘a right to be separate, to be autonomous’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx), and therefore to have one’s individuality and minority view respected while nevertheless remaining ‘included’ in a community. Inclusion must occur, importantly, ‘without absorption’ (Frandji and Vitale, 2016: 16), allowing new perspectives to thrive and challenge existing expertise. Without this subtle conception of inclusion, higher expertise risks retreating to a notion of ‘received truth’ which all must accept with deference. Expertise may be transformed if new and convincing claims come to light that authentically improve understanding, but this can only be achieved through a mode of inclusion that respects difference and independence.

But are these pedagogic rights practised together in contemporary higher education? Some higher education institutions risk becoming increasingly distant from the communities in which they are located, answering instead to the demands of league tables and notions of the ‘global research university’ (Marginson, 2006). Furthermore, academic work is often defined in terms of narrow output measures, irrespective of concerns for participation and inclusion. Market and bureaucratic logics actively undermine the potential for expert communities to operate, and dismiss the criteria of excellence upon which notions of higher expertise are based, replacing them with a belief in the ‘inevitable obsolescence of accumulated knowledge’ (Beck and Young, 2005: 191). Are these promising conditions for the upholding of an open and iterative model of higher expertise which can effectively challenge ‘post-truths’, while valuing the full participation and inclusion of all citizens?

One thesis might be that the post truth context is a consequence of a collapse of deference for ‘authority’, both in institutional and epistemic terms. An alternative argument would assert that ongoing assaults on deference are necessary to expose dominance and bias, and that a ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-enlightenment’ context allows multiple voices to be heard and undue influence to be exposed. Arguably these views foreground either enhancement or participation at the expense of the other pedagogic rights. A further view might suggest that the post-truth context illustrates how expertise is increasingly ‘divorced from persons, their commitments, their personal dedications’ (Bernstein, 2000, 86), partly as a consequence of the extension of market logics into higher education (and the professions). Truth has become commodified so that knowledge can ‘flow like money to wherever it can create advantage and profit’ (ibid), allowing opportunists to exploit increasing levels of public and private disorientation. Enhancement, participation and inclusion are all threatened – and all must be re-thought for the future vitality and relevance of higher education, and for societal ownership of expertise.

Higher education institutions and professional communities responsible for higher expertise have thus far insufficiently recognised the implications of a non-deferential society in which all assertions are challenged, and need to work harder at ensuring inclusion and participation to make enhancement a possibility for all. Making pedagogic rights central to a refreshed notion of higher expertise thus requires a commitment to all three rights: enhancement, inclusion and participation. Commitment to one or two without the other is almost as detrimental to the future of higher education as commitment to none.

References

Beck, J and Young, M (2005) ‘The assault on the professions and the restructuring of academic and professional identities: a Bernsteinian analysis.’ British Journal of Sociology of Education 26 (2): 183-197

Bernstein, B (2000) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity 2nd edn New York: Rowman and Littlefield

Frandji, D and Vitale, P (2016) ‘The enigma of Bernstein’s ‘pedagogic rights’.’ In Vitale, P and Exley, B (eds) (2016) Pedagogic rights and democratic education: Bernsteinian explorations of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, pp13–32 London: Routledge

Luckett, K and Naicker, V (2016) ‘Responding to misrecognition from a (post)/colonial university.’ Critical Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2016.1234495

Marginson, S (2006) ‘Dynamics of national and global competition in higher education.’ Higher Education 52(1): 1–39

McClean, M, Abbas, A and P Ashwin (2013) ‘University knowledge, human development and pedagogic rights’ in Boni, A and Walker, M (eds) (2013) Human development and capabilities: Re-imagining the university of the twenty-first century, pp30–43 London: Routledge

Winch, C (2010) Dimensions of expertise: A conceptual exploration of vocational knowledge London: Continuum.

Jim Hordern is Reader in Educational Studies at Bath Spa University, U.K. His research interests are in educational knowledge and practice, particularly in higher, professional and vocational education. He is Book Reviews Editor of the Journal of Vocational Education and Training and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Internationale Berufsbildungsforschung Springer book series.

You can find Jim’s full article, ‘Higher expertise, pedagogic rights and the post-truth society’ in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 288-301 athttps://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1532957

Ian Kinchin


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From ‘evidence-based’ to ‘post-truth’: is this a trend in higher education?

By Ian Kinchin

Is there a trend within higher education that parallels the general trend in society, from ‘evidence-based’ to ‘post-truth’? There has been a trend (that I have been aware of for several months, though it has probably been going on for very much longer) of a move away from research and data towards a justification of claims in the media by using statements such as, ‘a lot of people think that’. This trend has been played out very publicly in elections in the UK and in the US in the past year, where it seems that if you say something often enough and loud enough, then it will be accepted as part of the canon. Maybe that has always been so? But when we have Government ministers on the TV telling us that we shouldn’t listen to experts because sometimes they can get things wrong, it does sound like Homer-Simpson-reasoning.

We seem to be witnessing a similar trend in higher education where ideas seem to be distorted to fit political and economic aims. If you are really cynical, you might go back through press cuttings and see a move from ‘evidence-based’ to ‘student-centred’ to ‘post-truth’. I am not arguing against student-centredness here, but I am aware of the ways that is can be miss-represented so that the phrase ‘but the students want it’ seems to trump other arguments without any real analysis of what or why. But there is a question (probably many) here about what students want, which students want it and why students want it – whatever ‘it’ might be. Continue reading

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Post-Truth and the Higher Education and Research Bill

By Rob Cuthbert

The Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) has begun its Committee stage in the House of Lords. With 500 amendments tabled for line-by-line scrutiny, six days were set aside through to 25 January 2017, but on the first day, 9 January, only one amendment was considered. It was however a pivotal proposal, about the nature and purpose of universities, with the rarity of being taken to a vote – the first time since 2012 (on a health bill) that there had been a vote at this stage in the Lords. Debate is likely to be both heated and confused, because the Bill embodies two key contradictions – between centralised control and free market forces, and between two very different appeals to legitimacy: emotion and personal belief, or evidence.

In HE the neoliberal tendency often gets the blame, but, as Paul Temple points out in this issue of News, neoliberalism is not easily reconciled with the centralising and controlling inclinations which are a key part of the Bill. Times journalist Matt Ridley departed from his usual science and environment beat to devote a column on 9 January 2017 to the Bill, headlined ‘Universities are being nationalised by stealth’.  As a hereditary peer Viscount Ridley was no doubt heading for the House of Lords for the Bill’s first day. The Bill is indeed ‘a Whitehall power grab’, as he argued.

So far, so easy to understand. Whitehall’s civil servants always want more control. But why would politicians enamoured of the market choose to go along with it? Continue reading