Thematic Introduction  |  Suggestions for Proposals

Thematic Introduction

The Martinican psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon had observed in the past century that the human sciences suffered from forms of colonization not only at the level of their avowed epistemological goals but also at that of the methods by which they were conducted.   These considerations were later taken up in similar form in the thought of Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Enrique Dussel, Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Gayatri Spivak, and Arjun Appadurai (among others) with regard to the conditions by which even coloniality could be posed as a category of study in the human sciences, which in their turn were in need of interrogation for the subjects they cultivated.  Together, these considerations offer concerns about the colonization of thought and the institutions by which it is cultivated.  The modern university, with its divisions into the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, life sciences, and, in many instances, professional schools, is among those institutions.  Once confidently building the stock of knowledge for a prosperous age, universities around the world now suffer from a prevailing condition of decline and crises from challenged legitimacy.

More than a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche, who had a considerable influence on the thought of Fanon and Foucault, argued that decay is a natural consequence of life. As this process unfolds at a social level, however, its accompanying system of values often collapses into nihilism, whose form includes the collapse of purpose, meaning, and creativity in the production of knowledge and the institutions by which it is produced.  He was writing during times in which the German university was the undisputed leading institution of research, scholarship, and teaching.   Its eminence was such that its influence continued well into the beginning of the twentieth century, where it became the model for the rising super powers, even those from such opposing goals as the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet, the German university suffered a fate that baffled its most staunch proponents:  How could such a citadel of reason fall prey to the forces of barbarity at the fall of the Weimar Republic and the takeover by Nazism to become a paragon of shame by the second quarter of the twentieth century?  

Although at first adopting the German model, the U.S. University soon transformed itself into a hybrid institution in tension with elite aspirations on one hand and efforts at democratic education on the other. This experiment in mass education, adopted across the globe in various forms, was fueled by Cold War investments to stave off the ideological force of correlative aspirations in Eastern European universities.   The normalization of higher education as an expectation of human development raised challenges to polities dependent on subordinated labor populations, especially those with histories marked by caste, class, gender, and racial discrimination.   More educated people meant, and continues to mean, more people demanding higher standards of living and access to heretofore institutions of exclusion and power.   The results include radical shifts in social relations as universities became more than places of producing knowledge and preparing generations of representatives of human intelligence. Although linked in a complex genealogy to the earliest of human efforts to produce a world governed by peculiarly human activities—what the ancient Greeks called skolê(leisure time), from which derived the word school—the university and its concomitant constellation of disciplines now face challenges to their purpose as humanistic and humanizing institutions.  Such challenges include declining material investments in the humanities and similar developments in the social sciences reflecting any humanistic purpose.

Divergence from the humanistic foundations of schools and universities raises questions on the viability of knowledge produced without such bases.   If the human being is an obstacle for other avowed goals—such as the naked pursuit of profit or the instrumental organization of institutions according to projects of order—the university, if necessarily humanistic, faces at first the neurotic task of undermining itself by becoming an inhuman human institution.   Moreover, if the goal is to shake off human participation in the production of knowledge, especially so in an age of technocratic fetishism, the university’s demise may also have in its wake the cultivation of radically different kinds of institutions for the production of knowledge and the transmission of skills needed for the continuation of that enterprise.

This question of alternative institutions comes to the fore in the economic and technological transformation of societies in the geopolitical localities that have come to be known as the Global South.   As countries such as Brazil, China, and India now expand and pose challenges to North American and Western European economies and orderings of knowledge, with Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the African continent negotiating their relations to this development, questions of the kinds of institutions suitable for research, scholarship, and teaching in this changed context emerge.  Are universities prepared for the challenges posed by the impact of cyberspace on the mechanisms by which knowledge is acquired and produced?  Should the infrastructure of universities change to address the transformations to intelligence waged by the ever-evolving technologies?  And with regard to populations “from below,” is the university equipped to address the imaginative potential of the shifting sites of creativity and reason, at times emerging from the underclass and displaced populations not only from the Global South but also those of the shaken Western powers? 

Questions of imagination, creativity, and epistemic practice raise problems of disciplinary decadence, which emerges when researchers, scholars, and teachers fetishize their disciplines and methods at the expense of reality and wider commitments.  An offspring of disciplinary decadence is the colonization of knowledge, where, as we have seen, the modes of producing knowledge could be colonized by political, economic, or instrumentalist projects, prevails.   Such a predicament includes also the subordination of free inquiry to market forces and professional coercion.  The effort to transcend such impositions at times takes the form of a creative synthesis, of bringing different disciplines together in constructive ways.  And at other times it takes the form of going beyond extant disciplines through the production of new disciplines or, more radically, going beyond disciplines as the organizational model of producing knowledge.   Are such efforts possible?   And if so, are they desirable?

This conference will bring together scholars from across the humanities, social sciences, life sciences, and the natural sciences, to discuss these and other varieties of challenges faced by higher education in this second decade of the twenty-first century and their significance as humanity struggles, amid many social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental upheavals, to lay the groundwork for the twenty-second.   The triumvirate of research, scholarship, and teaching is here offered to unsettle the dominating binary of research and teaching, where scholarship is often excluded as an aspect of the academic’s vocation.  As well, the addition of scholarship raises considerations on the practice of teaching, for where teaching is guided by scholarship it becomes an activity by which the teacher is also the dedicated student, the devotee of learning committed to pedagogical imperatives of intellectual growth.

Suggestions for Proposals

The following topics are here offered to help those who are interested in participating in the conference in formulating their proposals for submission. They are, however, only suggestive and not exhaustive. Each is meant to be considered either from the perspective of the participant’s discipline or from that of the project of a dialogue in or across disciplines:

· What are the challenges faced by the humanities and the social sciences today?
· What are the unique challenges posed for research, scholarship, and teaching in the humanities and social sciences in what has become known as “the global south”?
· What is the impact of caste, class, gender, race, and sexuality on the humanities and social sciences today and what considerations do they pose for the future?
· What should scholars in the humanities and social sciences be doing to prepare for the twenty-second century?
· A correlate of the previous question: what should we expect to be the challenges for higher education at the end of the twenty-first century?
· How might problems of disciplinary decadence be overcome as researchers, scholars, and teachers attempt to do their work into the next century?
· How do disciplines relate to each other across the humanities and social sciences?
· What are the limits and strengths of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches?
· What is the potential of other conceptions of “mixed” methodologies and disciplines, such as comparativism, creolization, and bricolage, for problems of research, scholarship, and teaching?
· Is a decolonization of knowledge possible? If so, how might it be achieved and what are its implications?
· How should research, scholarship, and teaching be treated in a world of increased global diversity?
· What is the impact of technological developments on research, scholarship, and teaching?
· What alternatives are there to the market considerations posed by neoliberal and neoconservative prescriptions for the university in an age of globalism?
· How should academics respond to the scarcity of employment opportunities at a moment when the demand for higher education is higher than ever?