Universities

To solve societal challenges, universities must engage with alternative ways of knowing

Nearly 50 Canadian universities and colleges have signed the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education. The charter, which emerged from a national conversation in 2020, recognized the ethical responsibility of universities “to give voice to other ways of knowing”.

These thinking tools, or “ways of knowing,” are essential to solving real problems. As the saying goes: to a person with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But as scholars, we need to look beyond mainstream frameworks and knowledge. We have to look for other ways of knowing.

As experts in ways of knowing, we know that overconfidence in the idea that certain truths are right, good, or natural is a dangerous limitation of our ability to imagine. As education specialist Odora Hoppers writes:

“When the textbooks and formal institutions designed to produce and legitimize knowledge become cognitive regimes that only recognize the winner, and the vanquished knowledge is erased or condemned as unscientific, then we are witnessing a system of complicity that deprives freedom those who need it most – those on the receiving side of knowledge apartheid.

Whether it’s gun violence, racial inequality, poverty or climate change, when people are exposed to a particular worldview because it’s the predominant narrative that surrounds them, they lose the ability to see better and solve problems. But, as humans, we have the power to reassess how knowledge shapes what we learn and to create entirely different solutions to many of the challenges we face today.

By committing to developing alternative ways of knowing, universities can create better solutions to persistent problems.
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New Solutions to Persistent Problems

The commitment to developing other ways of knowing includes the important mandate of training students for a diverse world and labor market, but it is also much broader. It’s about giving them the tools to holistically understand the world we live in through nuanced perspectives on the challenges and opportunities we face.

For example, it is impossible to fully understand how employment can be exploited without developing labor studies that include violence against racialized and migrant workers. If we want to invest in a stronger culture of care, we must value and invest in the women’s and gender studies that have carried this work and questioned it.

We should support a version of disability studies that stops seeing people with disabilities as objects of saviorism and centers them as agents in their own lives and histories.

Canadian universities should place our nation within a larger American history that stretches from Patagonia to the Yukon, rather than assuming that we transcend both geography and our own colonial history.

We imagine universities that invest in these necessary alternatives and ways of knowing. Many well-resourced and respected academic disciplines constantly discuss their lack of diversity and the difficulty of stopping replicating old and flawed systems.

What if change doesn’t come from within?

University students with backpacks walk along a path.
Workplaces, families and civic organizations are looking for meaningful ways to embrace diversity and inclusion. It behooves universities to be that space where meaningful engagement with alternative ways of knowing can take place.
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imagine flourishing

Take the Canadian struggles against anti-black racism, for example. Along with accountability, mutuality, and inclusive excellence, the Scarborough Charter has identified Black flourishing as a core tenet of its work.

Black Studies should focus on the study of Black flourishing and resilience, not Black deficiency and its remediation. In doing so, the disparities between black and white Canadians – in career achievement, educational attainment, family structures and criminal behavior – are best understood as tensions between two alternative ways of knowing in which one of these ways received more social and political power. .

But what if traditional black ways of working were valued in such a way that results and efficiency were valued over following the rules? What if, historically, black family systems that recognize community responsibility for the child were seen as inherently valid, rather than out of step with notions of the nuclear family? Wouldn’t that fundamentally change the landscape of what it is to be Black and what it is to be White in communities across Canada?

However, by simply looking to individual faculties and departments to model diversity, universities perpetuate a deeply limited way of knowing our present and imagining the future. On the contrary, the university itself must change.

At the University of Windsor, we have worked with faculty, librarians, staff and senior managers to reimagine and recreate institutional spaces to create alternative ways of knowing. We worked to reimagine what solutions look like when they’re not designed by the same thinking that created the problem. We have therefore created a Department of Interdisciplinary and Critical Studies, where we apprehend disability not as a deficiency of the body, but as a strength of the person. And where homosexuality is theorized in a spirit of pride. We challenge universities to include other perspectives to change the world because there can be no other way but equitable inclusion.

By doing so, we can uphold the commitment of the Scarborough Charter, foster better scholarly conversations that include alternative ways of knowing, and ultimately improve the lives of all of us.