Re-educating the educated
By Rachel S Fisch, on 17 July 2020
Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.
“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated” (James Baldwin, 1963)
Part I: Epistemic Injustice and Education
James Baldwin, a black American writer and activist, argued that education is designed to teach people independent thought and decision-making, yet, the paradox within this is that once this occurs people will realise the wrongs in society and seek to change them. However, this will be society’s demise as ‘society’ wants docile subjects, not people actively seeking change.
Baldwin saw education as the force to enable society to change. He acknowledged the racial testimonial and hermeneutical injustice (Fricker, 2007) riddled within US society and its education system and called upon teachers to dispel the myths and dominant white narrative in American history that silenced other voices. The solution to societal change and racial equality was to educate and push children to understand the world constructed by those before them and give them the tools to remould it into something new.
Part II: Am I Educated?
History is a powerful force that has and continues to mould the world today. How history is told, or not told, embeds and reinforces worldviews in children from a young age. As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has swept across social media I have seen many petitions to change the UK’s school history syllabus. This made me reflect on the history I learnt at school, which was full of Normans, Tudors and WWII. This was a very white, male-dominated history that sought to paint the UK in a favourable light. The darker parts of history, such as the slave trade, were scarcely mentioned.
There is no doubt that knowledge is power. Yet knowledge is based on an outdated, white, Eurocentric and patriarchal ideology which subtly dictates society today. The UN views education as a basic human right, yet what we are taught ignores the rights of many and plurality of the world. Although knowledge is always in formation (Madge, Raghuram and Noxolo, 2015) its acquisition needs to become an inclusive, global and cyclical process. The UK school system assumes homogeneity; of students, subject matters and the world, impacting how people view and act in the world for generations. I now realise that I left school with a fragmented reality and minimal knowledge about how the world works, how it came to be and why it is how it is. The institutionalised ‘othering’ (Said, 1978) and marginalisation of information needs to be eradicated to prevent the on-going epistemic injustice prevalent in the UK education system.
Part III: The Online Field Trip
The rise of the BLM movement and the subsequent enlightenment on epistemic injustice made me reflect on how I conducted our fieldwork. From the onset, we were encouraged to place heavy emphasis on exploring our strategic pathway through a gendered perspective. Due to the virtual nature of our project we were unable to fully grasp the reality of a gendered experience in Freetown and relied on our assumptions and previous research that commonly contextualised women as marginalised and disproportionately burdened. As a group, we established that the gender of the interviewer should parallel that of the interviewee, as we believed that this may influence the openness of the interviewee and thus the obtained data.
I realise in hindsight that how we were conducting the research and asking interview questions were biased towards our positionality rather than the local context. We found that although our assumptions of women in Freetown are true, they failed to reflect the heterogeneity of the gender experience, the high levels of resilience displayed by women in their everyday lives and their oppression in wider knowledge production. The fact that the Mayor of Freetown is a woman seemed to escape me, highlighting that the strong ideas of gender in the academic sphere swayed my perspective and did not fully reflect the situation in Freetown. This made me think further about where this knowledge came from and the power relations that enabled this knowledge to shape my perceptions as a researcher and practitioner. The academic sphere has been shaped by white, privileged males, and made me overlook my knowledge of being a woman and intersectionality in this fieldwork. I also realised that such knowledge fails to truly reflect the situations on the ground as communities don’t tend to get the opportunity to share their knowledge, and if they do, it tends to be distorted through the academic lens of the researcher.
This process taught me to reject preconceived notions of knowledge, data collection methods and; that learning truly is a dynamic concept (Acharya, 2007). It was only through doing this project that I truly realised the importance and power of co-producing knowledge and action to tackle epistemic injustice. There are multiple understandings of the world and we need to escape our current embedded, Western restraints to truly understand lived experiences and create positive change. Although it was not the field trip we all imagined, it showed me that academic knowledge is not always the ‘right’ knowledge and that seeing, listening and incorporating what others have to say is vital in challenging what we think we know and our assumptions.
Part IIII: Re-educating the Education System
Society is crying out for change, and in doing so, is finally acknowledging the paradox of education and the injustices within it. Although the societal issues are not new, how we perceive and understand them are evolving. Following Baldwin, I think that to truly address and disrupt epistemic injustices we need to change how and what we teach our children – our future. The lessons that we learn in school stay with us, and we are currently not teaching children enough.
Whilst many will look back on 2020 as a dark period in history, I think that 2020 is the year of ‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter, 1976), whereby we will move beyond crisis to radical change (Biel, 2020). This year has been scary, painful and heart-breaking, yet it has forced many to wake up and seek opportunities for societal reflection and possibly become the force of change that this world needs. I hope to take the lessons learnt from my ‘field trip’ in Freetown and apply them to my academic and personal outlook to help identify and address the epistemic injustices I encounter in my life.
Acharya, S. (2007) Identity, Technological Communication and Education in the Age of Globalization. Gender, Technology and Development, 11(3), pg.339-356.
Baldwin, J. (2008) . A Talk to Teachers. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 107(2), pg.15-20.
Biel, R. (2020) From crisis to radical change. Post COVID-19 Urban Futures webinar series. [Online] Available from: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development/events/2020/apr/crisis-radical-change
Fricker, M. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. [Online] Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Madge, C., Raghuram, P. and Noxolo, P. (2015) Conceptualizing international education: From international student to international study. Progress in Human Geography, 39(6), pg.681-701.
Said, E. W. (1978) Orientalism. London: Penguin.
Schumpeter, J. A. (1976) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. [Online] London: Routledge.