The Development Equation/Brief Historical Context of Learning and Knowledge

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Learning and Knowledge in the 21st Century : The Development Equation
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A chief problem in understanding learning and knowledge in the 21st century is that we enter it with a history still obscured by several centuries on colonialism. The mid-twentieth century saw the end of formal colonial relationships between European and other continental nations. The hegemony over knowledge and its processes was challenged, creating a crisis in the humanities (I have a source for this). Yet, the nature of the history of the development of knowledge, it's accreditation and institutionalization, and its relationship to culture and power in history remain difficult problems to unravel. Part of the difficulty owes to the timing of the first revolution in communication technology in written documents, the printing press, arriving at the beginning of the rise of colonialism. Documents of other civilizations destroyed in the course of war are harder to recover since copies are fewer or nonexistent. Thus, 'literature' can appear to be a tradition dominated by the West along with the monopoly over what is contained in the 'body of literature'. However, progress in historocal research and archaelogy are advancing a more global picture.

The typical core undergraduate courses at universities that teach the history of science, history of philosophy or the humanities still have minimal content and sources that depart from the traditional story of 'Western knowledge'. Internationalization of core curriculum has become a 21st century priority of universities (I can source this), and the emergence of Southern research from a role of collecting information towards research programs directed in Northern institutions to carrying out its own research agenda has been discussed(source to come). The development of research capacity and the ability to disseminate knowledge globally on the part of Southern research insitutions could shed better light on the history of knowledge and the humanities in general.

To provide a brief look at the problem, given the under-development of historical research on knowledge development in the South, I present two alternatives to compare hypotheses on understanding of the origins of modern knowledge; the traditional history of knowledge development as taught typically to undergraduate students now, and a global history more sought after in an internationalized curriculum. Both exist as hypotheses, since the traditional history suffers from gaps, and those gaps are what comprises the global history.

The traditional narrative

In the traditional history, our understanding of knowledge development begins with the accomplishments of the Greeks, a story often beginning with the work of Thales towards developing an empirical understanding of the natural world. Rational inquiry was developed by Plato, Socrates and Aristotle and Hippocrates developed the practises and ethics of medicine before A.D. The progress of intellectual thought was suppressed after the Church in Europe seized upon the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic conception of the universe, since it supported Church doctrine that the Earth was the centre of the universe. This notion, and the ability of thought to develop as free inquiry independent of religious doctrine was limited through the Middle Ages. The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo that challenged the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model finally began to unravel the hold with which the Church had on the development of knowledge. The Renaissance was a re-birth of free inquiry and a re-discovery of the Greek texts. The shift in the power balance held by the Church extended to the political landscape, and the Enlightenment gave birth to modern values of secularism, democracy and freedom. Science freed from the constraints of religion was able to rapidly develop in tandem and contributing to further technological advances, military capabilities and ability to manipulate the natural world towards material progress. This heralded in the modern epoch.

The Global Narrative

A global history sees the Greek world as one nexus in time and place of knowledge development, owing its progress to an enabling social and political context. The Greeks however, were influenced through trade and travel by intellectual thought in other regions, particularly the connections with India and North Africa. They drew on such connections and sources in the development of their own. In turn, during the Middle Ages, the progess of knowledge was not interrupted, but rather the nexus shifted location from Europe to the Middle East, North Africa, Persia and Muslim Spain. During the Islamic Golden Age, Greek sources were drawn upon heavily in neo-Platonic Islamic works in philosophy, natural sciences, mathematics, medicine and humanities. The discovery of Persian texts demonstrates mathematical discoveries of Copernicus to have existed in similar form two centuries earlier. Baghdad was known as the cradle of civilization and the world's oldest university Al-Azhar is located in Cairo, established during this era. Baghdad and other cities in the Islamic empires of this period were connected by trade over the Silk Road from Europe, connecting these regions to Central Asia, China, South-East Asia and the Far East. The North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa were connected by land, and Southern Africa, North Africa and India were connected over the Indian Ocean from the civilization of Great Zimbabwe to the South Pacific. The development of knowledge in Greece and in the Muslim world was truly international. Though not completely free of religious interference, the patronage of the Muslim states and the belief among many that the religion supported free intellectual inquiry allowed knowledge to flourish until finally internecine conflicts, the Crusades and the Mongol invasions disrupted or destroyed Muslim institutions. The nexus shifted to Europe, where the development of knowledge in the Renaissance and Enlightenment relied heavily on the transmission of Greek knowledge by neo-Platonic Muslim scholars, and the sources developed within the Muslim world with global influence. During the colonial period and prior, expanding empires encountered indigenous cultures most often at great cost to these. The indigenous cultures had developed generational knowledge that was shared with the expanding civilizations, adopted by them and later attributed to them. Intellectual property issues and indigenous knowledge remain a contentious issue today. In the West, science became dominated by positivism following the Vienna Circle becoming the dominant cultural paradigm in the intellectual world and defining modernism as scientific, rational, secular and technological. However, positivism has undergone challenges in the physical sciences from where it originated. New pluralistic and relativistic paradigms emerged in social sciences and humanities. Health sciences today no longer are reduced to an objective, physical science and together with psychology and influences from indigenous health, individual, community and social health can be looked at in more holistic ways. At Alma Ata, the agenda for Health for All as well as the World Health Organization definition of health was shaped by the presence of indigenous people at the conference.

Note - some of this requires sources, but for the most part this is to compare two hypotheses.

It is commonly noted that if you do not know your past, you cannot fully appreciate your present situation or the implications for the future. The objective in providing two hypotheses here is not to offer one story as more factual than the other, but in fact to demonstrate a gap in our understanding. A more complete understanding of the history of knowledge globally is needed, and can only be gained through integrating knowledge of the past from sources that include the histories of the people concerned. This endeavour is a global one, and one more reason for partnership by higher education institutions across regions, for shared access to research literature, for a de-centralization geographically of the participation in the production of knowledge, and another significant use of digital technologies in communicating new understanding about the humanities. In essence, the humanities ought to be able to tell a story of all humanity. We need a way for the story of any people to be told by that people, and for other peoples to be able to hear it. Universities have a role to play as centers of knowledge production and dissemination, a role which requires networks that are open.

If the global history of knowledge is more complete than the traditional one, it also demonstrates that the development of science and medicine is not an activity which is attached to a particular culture. It has been a history where knowledge, culture and power have coalesced in particular regions under political contexts which enabled free intellectual inquiry and that the nexus moved geographically and culturally by circumstances of the time. The current circumstances allow for the dispersion of that nexus, or the possibility that centres of innovation, civilizational progress may be developed and belong to cultures anywhere. These cultures will no doubt be shaped by modern and post-modern developments, by external and even global influences, in turn they will re-shape civilizational development. Learning and knowledge, and the university as platform for them, belong to no particular culture.

Request for Assistance

The problem of sources and the narratives of the history of knowledge. Excerpted from request to a noted scholar on this subject, please advise if you can help -

Mostly, I am looking for sources to examine my hypotheses that the fluidity of knowledge pre-European Renaissance enabled modern knowledge development, that what occured in Europe was necessary but not sufficient for modern knowledge to develop. In that sense, looking for the roots of global knowledge.

My supposition is that the Silk Road, as well as trade routes along the Indian Ocean allowed both the Greeks to develop knowledge in the classical period, and for the Muslim Empires Middle East/Persia/North Africa/Muslim Spain to develop it druing the Middle Ages while sourcing the Greeks at the same time. I believe contributions were made by SubSaharan African civilizations as well as those of North America after contact.

This is to challenge the notion of knowledge being 'Western', and with that in mind, challenge the resistance to knowledge as Western that may be a limiting factor in development, as a form of cultural protectionism in the post-colonial world. Particularly it can hamper the Muslim world, if the Muslim world buys into the clash of civilizations nonsense and does not know its own history, which would better be described as 'Islam is the 'West, rather than 'Islam vs. the West'. That is if the 'West' is defined as a place of the intellect, of sciences and medicine, of dialogue and democracy, of technology for the betterment of human beings, and of free inquiry which is a requisite for knowledge.

We want to see learning and knowledge as an active and transformational process, rather than an imposed and passive one as cultures meet in a space of global knowledg sharing. This is very important to the potential that bridging the digital divide has, particularly with Open Access, with concerns that the world of scholarly material tends to already be dominated almost completely by G8 higher education and research instutions. Yet, access to knowledge gives one the ability to transform it by cultivating a local research culture, and hence to contribute back to the global knowledge pool. The benefit for the North, and for the globe, is that the diversity of perspectives and the comprehensiveness of knowledge improves when the majority of the world participate. That may be critical, when one sums the totality of global problems requiring the intellect, and reflects that on the whole the world is operating at about 10% capacity.

One barrier to that participation may be the notion of cultural ownership over the processes of knowledge creation, again, the idea of 'Western knowledge'.

I have noticed a new book about Philosophies of Persia. Also, there is a current exhibit I will attend at the Ontario Science Centre on Muslim Sciences which will likely prove useful. It was at an Id celebration that I listed to a scholar describe the astronomy discoveries similar to Copernicus, but 200 years earlier, I believe at Alamut if I remember correctly and by Nasr Din Tusi. These sources are very difficult to find in the literature, which lends itself to the recursivity of the overall problem. On a side note, I have a particular interest in the Ikwhan as Safa, but am not sure of how significant it might be or whether there has been a translation that is available.

The global narrative that I present is difficult to defend on sources. The traditional narrative presented ad nauseum to undergraduates also cannot be defended by sources, because we at least know there is very acute problem of bias and reflexivity associated with our recent history that produces a signifcant knowledge gaps and blindness to error. As a world, our notion of history is therefore contested and obscured by this. We need to further use technology and communication to overcome those knowledge gaps, in essence reaching for the future to know our past, and as the saying goes, to know your past so you know where you are going.