American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 26

Changes in the Context for
Creating Knowledge

The Impact of Demographic and Social Changes
on Higher Education and the Creation of Knowledge

George Keller

The Paradigm Shift
Dennis O’Brien

Susanne Hoeber Rudolph

The Paradoxes of Transnational Learning

Susanne Hoeber Rudolph
University of Chicago

Stan Katz told me that I was expected to address the international dimension of the topic, “Knowledge for What (and for Whom)?”. Because sometime in the course of my remarks I will remind us that all knowledge is “situated,” let me start by situating myself with respect to this subject.

In my mode as scholar, I am a political scientist who likes comparisons, BIG comparisons, Weberian size comparisons at a civilizational level. As a teacher, I have been offering a course about South Asian civilization for more than 20 years, off and on. It is one of the five or six courses — African “civ,” East Asian “civ,” South Asian “civ,” and so forth — through which University of Chicago students fulfill the requirement that they must study a civilization. (I continue to use the term, civilization, in a provisional way despite its embarrassments: Who is civilized? What is a civilization?) I have worked with my colleagues to adapt that course as its constituency, like that of other civilization courses, became populated in part by the South Asian diaspora. The young woman in the second row from Peoria is no longer named Jean Bullock but Vidya Ramaswami. I also direct a South Asia center where some 30 faculty members teach the languages and politics and society of the Indian subcontinent, and send some eight to ten Ph.D.s into the world each year, many as teachers of teachers, some as policy intellectuals in government and in NGOs.

What justification do I have for such an enterprise? What warrants the kind of high intensity, deep knowledge, complex learning provided by an elaborate and not inexpensive “area” program at the undergraduate and graduate level? Let me try two justifications, one of the sort we are fond of telling Congressional representatives when Title VI of the National Education Act is up for renewal and they want to know why they should fund advanced Bengali classes with two students, and one of the sort I give when I am defending General Education as a humane enterprise.

I am going to locate one justification in the context of the contradictory trends of our decade, toward globalization on the one hand and localization on the other. The two feed each other. Globalization creates common languages, common concepts, common communities of praxis. It creates an expert brotherhood of computer specialists who can communicate with each other even when they do not speak the same language. It creates a normative and practical community of technicians, scientists, and leaders of non-governmental and activist organizations addressing common problems of the environment in Washington, Ahmedabad, and Geneva. We all know that the media are an important force in creating these transnational epistemes.

But lo and behold, transnational epistemes do not eliminate the regional and local. They may even strengthen them in ways both benign and malign. The world is full of partisans of local communities to whom globalization presents itself as a threat, as an augur of rootlessness. One might say that the reason the Ayatollah Khomeini wanted Salman Rushdie dead was not so much because of what he had to say about the prophet, but because he inspired in Khomeini and his people a fear of flying. Fear of the detachment from solid earth, from rooted culture. It is The Satanic Verses’s very cosmopolitanism, its heterogeneous complexity, its kaleidoscopic fragmenting and reassembling of transnational identities, that inspires the fear of flying, and the compensatory nostalgia for a simple, homogeneous, local reality, that is represented always to have been there — though of course it was not. One way, then, that the global feeds and intensifies the local is when those frightened by the unending frontiers and boundary-less arenas of the global project it as a safe haven.

On the other hand the world is also full of local communities that look out on the global as a promise and an encouragement. Indians in Peru and upper New York State as members of transnational organizations of oppressed peoples recognize each others’ common condition, learn approaches, and bring them home to adopt more effectively in local contexts. For them the global is not frightening but liberating. In either case, the local, contrary to what nostalgia insists upon, will not remain static but be recreated to correspond to the new world context. The global regenerates the local, though, to be sure, not the same local as before. An intimate and intense learning about a particular civilization is one of the ways to overcome the powerful propensity to believe the Other never changes, and to understand instead both the genealogies of the local and its transformations.

The global-local dynamic also generates conflicts, those that assail us every morning from our international pages — in Rwanda, Goradze, Zulu land, and Kashmir. Nor is there any reason to believe that these conflicts will disappear. I assume, with many others, that the predominant form of warfare over the next decade will be the organized violence that occurs within states and, in the case of ethnic and religious solidarities that cross state lines, can grow into international conflicts. These wars do not threaten world survival as did nuclear threats. But they are just as vicious and deadly as was international conventional warfare.

Let me illustrate. The Indian and Pakistani armies fought several inconclusive international wars in 1965 and 1971. They were partly wars over Kashmir. The present conflict in Kashmir, largely generated by a history of insensitive Indian politics under Indira Gandhi and her successors, is not an international war. It is a war between Indian troops and local Islamic militants supported by training camps and weapons from the Pakistan side. There are no Pakistan troops in this conflict — no national army fighting a national army — any more than there is in much of the Eastern European conflict. The loss of life to the Indian security forces and civilians in this “domestic” imbroglio exceeds the loss of life in the two international wars of 1965 and 1971. To address “war” these days, we have to look at domestic conflicts. To do that, we need to address region and country and ethnie.

If the nature of international conflict has changed significantly in the last five years, and ethnic cleansing and internal warfare have taken the place of threatened global conflict among superpowers, how shall we grasp this new reality? One way to grasp it is the mode pervasive in much of the media, the mode that asserts these internal conflicts — in Rwanda, Macedonia, Bosnia, Kashmir — are the results of “ancient hatreds.” Ancient hatreds is what many Americans think other folks have; ancient hatreds, a category that conveys the belief that distant and unfamiliar persons are irrational, willing to kill and be killed in the service of passions with which they were apparently born.

The other day I was listening to National Public Radio going over Rwanda. Noah Adams was trying to extract from historian Alison Desforges the “real” reason for the Rwanda savagery. Desforges was trying to tell Noah Adams that actually the Tutsi and the Hutu, even though they had a history of mutual suspicions, normally lived together under peaceable circumstances. “There is intermarriage,” she said, “between Hutu and Tutsi. There are friendships between Hutu and Tutsi. There are very strong ties of many kinds. But what happened was that this group of extremists, in their reluctance to yield to a more democratic regime, began actively encouraging anti-Tutsi feeling and hostility towards members of the Hutu opposition.”

Desforges’s story could have been transplanted almost word for word to the Bosnian-Serbian arena, where intermarriage and neighborhood concord were equally the order of the day until a calculated media campaign working up the Bosnian-Serb differences, orchestrated by Slobovan Milosovich, transformed the situation within a matter of months.

Desforges was saying that where there is cultural pluralism, there are positive and negative possibilities. How events will move depends on historical conjunctures and on the way politicians and persons of power construe situations to their advantage. Noah Adams, reminding Desforges of earlier Tutsi-Hutu warfare, tried to push her into admitting there must be, somewhere behind all those complex historical events, a single cause. Said he: “If you don’t accept the one word, tribalism, what word would you replace it with?” to which Desforges said, “I guess I’m not into simplicities like that. I mean I don’t see the need for a one word explanation for anything. It’s not tribalism. It’s conflict between groups in a population who are struggling for the goodies in a system that has precious few.” Her explanation stressed political advantage, and how leaders manipulated extant identities to achieve it; it stressed economic competition and how the fight for scarce resources had become defined in ethnic terms — not dissimilar from one way of understanding the conflict between Koreans and African Americans in Los Angeles. But Noah Adams wanted “tribalism” — a category that relieves one from probing for the complexities, particularities, of all those obscure people.

One reason an intensive, particularistic, and complex education about other world civilizations is necessary is to create more journalists, teachers, writers who recognize the complexity and multifaceted nature of our civilizational counter-players. Such an education particularizes the denizens of the civilization, revealing the heterogeneity of social and cultural causes that account for their actions.

Recently my colleague Samuel Huntington, a most imaginative political scientist, offered a series of categories for understanding international politics in the postwar world. The conflict in the future, he said, would be among civilizations. The most significant marker of civilizations is religion. The world could be understood as consisting of civilizational units. Christianity, divided into North America and Europe; Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe and Russia; Islam; Confucianism; Hinduism. These divisions will supply the cleavage lines of the future, he said.

This Atlantic fortress vision of the West versus the rest evokes images of Europe crusading against the infidel. It slots into the explanatory boxes left empty when cold war ideology died. It doesn’t help for the same reason that Noah Adams’ one word explanation from “tribalism” obscures vital differences. Consider only the warfares of the last decade that have riveted our attention, and ask yourself to what extent such a schema helps. Iraq-Iran war; Saudi-Iran enmity; United Nations-Iraq war, where the United States fought in collaboration with much of the Arab world. All of these are intra-civilizational wars, fought between Islamic brethren. “Confucian”? Does South Korea trust China and Japan more than it trusts the United States? Are patterns of alliance indeed most likely to be struck on an “intra-Confucian” basis? Religion is an element in international alliances and enmities but it is as likely to be used by states — as when Iraq’s left-secular government tried to wrap itself in Islamic robes — as to generate the basic relationships between them.

Back to the civilizational study component of international education. We need at least two kinds of international education, and there is a significant epistemological difference between them. We need international studies that recognize the emergence of a global community, global expertise, global epistemes, universal conceptual languages that tie together bankers in Rio and Bombay and Bangkok, or human rights activists in Boston, Ahmedabad, and Bonn. But we also need education for particularism, for the immense locales represented by China, Malaysia, India, Egypt, Kenya — locales whose ethnic, subnational, class, and religious particularities explain much that we want to have explained: agrarian productivity, population decline, literacy lags, ethnic conflict, deforestation, bureaucratic rigidity, and other global issues.

One justification then for the study of particular non-Western civilizations is the hope of countering two-dimensional and stereotypical views of other civilizations by pursuing serious and particularizing knowledge. Politicians and policy intellectuals need to recognize that thin understandings of other cultures make bad policy, bad trade, bad neighbors, and handicap Americans in their interaction with the world.

Let me suggest another justification. The study of another civilization is not a one way street: We study Them. It is a two way process: we also study ourselves. Exploring another civilization makes evident the historically constructed nature of our self-understanding even as we confront the constructed nature of our understanding of non-Western others. It provides an opportunity to make students aware that the eyes through which Europeans gaze at non-Europe are loaded in particular ways. They can learn to be reflexive about themselves and their civilization.

In my South Asian Civilization course, I ask students to look at South Asian architecture and sculpture, temples, palaces, and monuments. They often find these visual presentations quite beautiful and quite strange. I then expose them to the writings of James Fergusson, the encyclopedic soi-disant art-historian whose representation of Indian architecture and painting disproportionately shaped English and European understanding for almost 100 years. Fergusson was in the grip of the Hellenic infatuation which provided the civilizational measuring tape of nineteenth-century Englishmen. Thus while the Taj Mahal is not bad it ends up with a grade of 20 as against a grade of 24 for the Parthenon. Fergusson is also obviously in the grip of an evolutionary metaphor of progress, in which all civilizations have a known rank and are either progressing or declining. India, it turns out, more rapidly in decline the closer it approached contemporary times. “The Glory that was India” was a favorite trope. South Indian Gopurams, towered gateways, are degenerate and tasteless, overdecorated by contrast with the “chastity” of classic styles. Heavy. Rich. Overripe. Excessive sensuousness. Barbaric.

Fergusson represents a powerful teaching exercise in cultural ethnocentrism or, to phrase it otherwise, in the situated nature of knowledge projects. What seemed natural to Fergusson, or to most early twentieth-century Englishmen, is not at all natural to 1990s University of Chicago students. They are very open and receptive to the possibility that a variety of forms might be beautiful or powerful or aesthetically satisfying. They have gone through impressionism and surrealism and cubism and the tradition of the new. They are less constrained by nineteenth-century versions of exclusionary Christianity when judging an exotic icon. They are less constrained by Victorian prudery about the sensuous dimensions of Apsaras carved on temple columns. And they are not into the natural superiority of classical styles. They do not share the happy nineteenth-century belief in a universal civilizational metric, let alone a universal Greek metric.

The Fergusson “exercise,” then, has a sobering effect on the students. They find it funny, a little absurd, an unacceptable framework of interpretation. And yet it represents attitudes that were dominant for almost 100 years. Fergusson provides a context for the cultural self-reflexivity that a good civilizational course teaches. Civilization provides a context for cultural self-reflexivity. It teaches not only about the Indian “other,” but about the Western “self,” and about how they are related. Students recognize that representation of a civilization is not just a transparent, self-evident, and positive “reality.” The view of our own civilization and of another is itself produced by observers who are in turn situated in the intellectual predilections and the power projects of their time. I am not making a simple neo-Saidian case that Fergusson served the imperial projects of Britain when he systematically denigrated the civilization of the colonized — although that too was woven into his account. The cultural dispositions of his time — the Grecian canons of art — historical judgment; the Judaeo-Christian canons of monotheism; the neo-Darwinian understanding about which civilizations are winners and which losers — collaborated in Fergusson’s construction of India. One hopes that students exposed to such learning experiences may cast an inquiring and skeptical eye upon themselves, problematizing the way we look at both Western and non-Western civilizations, as visions generated not by eternity, but by us ourselves, particular scholars embedded in and advancing the agendas of our own time.