Towards ethical repair and coexistence among knowledge systems

Catherine A. Odora Hoppers - 22 July 2022

Hopper Ideas LAB 2

Peace has to be planetary peace and neighbourhood peace, where society exceeds contract, and where healing and prayer join in citizenship of therapy, where peace seeks the humility to go beyond the egoism of nation states. We seek a peace that heals, restores and reconciles communities in rituals of healing everydayness

— Shiv Visvanathan, Address delivered at the Fourth Indigenous Knowledge Systems Interface Conference, held at the University of Venda, South Africa on 3 December 2016.


Governance, memory and innovation

In the state of the world so beset by colonialism and heightened imperialism and the hierarchization, it has produced worldwide, a focus on the global ethics and learning is needed to change the way we envision the institutions we have and in particular, of the systems of decision-making in all the fields of endeavour. It will have to be underpinned by a lived ethics, not a compliance driven ethics, as is done variously by institutions now. The notion of ethics proposed here provides the base of a new governance model of local-global interface and goes further by enhancing the wider issues of sustainability and fostering an increased consciousness of a human mission in a complex world.

We need to search for a new language…
by introducing a sense of locality,
context and relevance

Knowledge systems need to learn from, and validate one another. A just integration of the knowledge systems is valuable both for the creation of fundamental knowledge (and a better self-understanding of humanity) and for addressing the big societal challenges of our times. The governance model envisaged therefore fosters lifelong learning in all the sectors and disciplines to raise the bar in the promotion of human rights and international understanding, thereby furthering the goals set by UNESCO.

The governance of dialogue between knowledge systems would constitute an attempt to add to the democratic imagination, emphasizing the plurality of cultures, enhancing the relation between knowledge and democracy by linking it to livelihood and citizenship. It will have to take into account the African philosophy and practice rooted in ubuntu, the Malaysian concept of sejahtera, the Japanese concept of ikigai, and the Chinese concept of yin and yang - a theory of deep caring and humility; but it will be global in the sense that it seeks to identify theories of ‘caring’ and ‘humility’ that exist variously in the global setting so that the violence of exclusion that permeates the scientific field is brought to and discussed in public. By optimizing plurality and minimizing violence, one sets the frame for dialogic knowledge as a playful, yet disciplined and strategic way of creating the conversation of cultures: a great thought experiment.

Governance as it is applied today, fetishizes information over knowledge as an ecology. By taking on ‘applied’ dimensions of governance, we will develop the epistemics of governance that will be worked out in terms of a new vocabulary. Otherwise, the model of governance that is espoused all over is puritan and unnuanced about the suffering and exclusion it creates. Lived ethics interacts with epistemology to create a more ecological critique of governance. It links memory and innovation. We need to search for a new language beyond the current economics and the governance that ensues from it by introducing a sense of locality, context and relevance.

Scholarship has become distant, antiseptic and removed from the experiences of the lived world, and thus from recognizing the pain, anger and anguish being experienced in the society beyond the world of ‘workers’. The only time Academe turns violent it seems, is when someone disturbs its consensus. As Gyan Prakash writes, the casting of light at last onto subjugated peoples, knowledges, histories, and ways of living, unsettles the toxic pond and transforms passive analysis into a generative force that valorizes and recreates life for those previously museumized.

It is also becoming possible to speak of the plurality of critical traditions and human rationality as they exist and express themselves in different cultures. There is a need for rethinking thinking, that goes beyond the clutches of mere dissent or post-colonial critique, to transformative post-colonial action. It is also clear that the current default drive of knowledge production, accompanied by the deep exclusions, inherent in its practices, will not survive. As Shiv Visvanathan argues, only through cognitive justice as a method for exploring difference and the right to plurality and coexistence among knowledge systems, and providing for reciprocity and empathy, can we turn this hierarchy into a circle.

As far as the governance of the future goes, we will have to seek to build a context in which the democratic imagination and conversation is constructed between knowledge systems for emerging leaders posited in a transdisciplinary way. A new approach to decision-making and governance in all fields, in particular the educational field, that seeks to integrate questions of ethical and political analysis is needed. By doing so, it will create a deeper meaning and promote the link between science and society in Africa and globally. In its base, the new governance model will have to acknowledge from the start the need for plural viewpoints, and enhance community, collective, and life-long learning that acknowledges the diversity of knowledge systems.

A Turning Point

The Report of the Sahle-Work Commission on the Futures of Education, Reimagining our Futures Together: A new social contract for education, urges us to realize that humanity is at a turning point. We already know that knowledge and learning are the basis for renewal and transformation. But, according to the Report, global disparities in terms of knowledge signal a pressing need to reimagine why, how, what, where, and when we learn. It means that education is not yet fulfilling its promise to help us shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures. What role education can play in shaping our common world and shared future as we look to 2050 and beyond?

It is time to examine the conditions
for dialogue among knowledge systems

How can we envision education’s curricula which must embrace an ecological understanding of humanity that rebalances the way we relate to Earth as a living planet and our singular home, when we have made it our singular pledge to uphold the western, linear, deductive, competitive, hierarchical, and detached in relation to the same environment; and to ignore complete knowledge systems, and caring values from other cultures?

Our crisis is very much like the crisis faced at the Second World War. We need to go beyond theories and emphasize values. Human beings are bigger than concepts. We need to go beyond abstraction and emphasize consciousness. Decolonization of curricula? Yes, but we have to go way beyond that. As recognized by the same Report,

Education – the way we organize teaching and learning throughout life – has long played a foundational role in the transformation of human societies. It connects us with the world and to each other, it exposes us to new possibilities, and strengthens our capacities for dialogue and action. But to shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures, education itself must be transformed. (Sahle-Work Commission report, p. 1)

We need to understand the ‘hidden curriculum’ – the design elements, rules and structures that drive factory-schooling. As Manish Jain has so eloquently put it:

Sitting in lines produces linear and stagnant thinking. Fragmented disciplines produce fragmented understanding and the breakdown of wisdom. Flat textbooks and black and white exams produce lack of ability to engage with complex emotions, diverse opinions and ‘gray’ situations. Locking children up in concrete classrooms and in front of screens produces nature deficit disorder. Ranking and competition produce new social hierarchies, arrogance and sense of scarcity. Compulsion and motivation through rewards and punishments produce a loss of purpose and self-esteem, fear of making mistakes, and disconnect with your inner voice. Who says school doesn't teach you any values?

But when we talk of reimagining and co-designing research, and co-constructing knowledge, we have to go further and ask, with whom? What are the terms and conditions? What are the constitutive rules of the game? Who polices the paradigmatic rules of the game? By which I mean that tension riddled enterprise of cultural border crossing the West had monopolized without any ambition to dialogue, or reciprocity, or respect, or courtesy, or valorization, or recognition of the ‘Other’? Pavlov’s dogs are out of the cage now. What were previously objects have become subjects. It is time to examine the conditions for dialogue among knowledge systems.

But we have to be aware that in Africa, and most of the colonized world, duress and humiliation, particularly in research and policy work (let alone life itself), are the most important weapons of mass destruction. Humiliation is the enforced lowering of a person that damages their dignity. Humiliation is about putting down and holding down. It is the enforced lowering of any person or group by a process of subjugation that damages their dignity. It is a ‘nuclear bomb of emotions’.

Questions for education and the academy

Of the academy and universities in general, we have to ask the unasked questions: what type of research questions are being asked and are allowed to be asked? What are the existing rules and regulations governing legitimation and accreditation of scientific knowledge? We need to explore deeper into the interface between epistemology, diversity, and democracy, and of the potentials for true exchange and the reciprocal valorization among knowledge systems (for example as David Peat did in his work on Blackfoot physics). We have to transform by enlargement, which means that we have to introduce bicultural experts at the epistemological level in the academy so as to introduce key topics as innovation from below – and generate ideas not from the labs, but from common people. These new experts will introduce and strengthen a broader notion of justice, for instance in jurisprudence, the paradigmatic imperatives surrounding ‘restorative justice’ are much wider, but remain stuck in the model of ‘retributive justice’.

We have to seek genuine inclusion and equity, cooperation, and solidarity, as well as collective responsibility and interconnectedness, based on holistic, relational, and Indigenous models of learning that are intergenerational and intercultural. Emancipatory education underpinned by restorative action is not a band wagon. It is hard work. It goes beyond ‘liberatory education’ as we have known it. This is the time for acts of courage, leadership, resistance, creativity, and care to be born to guide us to that new social contract to overcome discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion. Ways forward must consist of a proper prognosis that must be born of a proper diagnosis. We must identify what modernity left out in the first place. We have to centre on the right to life long education and be inclusive of different kinds of evidence and ways of knowing, including horizontal learning and the exchange of knowledge across borders.

I criticize modernity not to destroy it
but to transform it by enlarging it

In the global South and in Africa especially, we have to move from post-independence ‘indigenization’, which focused on the inclusion of ‘black’ people into the game or drama, which has brought us into this crisis in the first place, to building generations of scholars, civil society and knowledge holders who can: question the rules of the game – by which I mean setting out the imperatives and dialogues on epistemological and cultural jurisdictions; engage the paradigmatic frames; engage the constitutive rules of systems and thereby proffer new visions and strategies and finally solutions of a different kind.

As Manish Jain writes in his ‘Declaration of Decolonizing Education’,

I can no longer accept a narrative of education that sees links to my land, to my local languages, to my seeds, to my rivers, to my trees, to my histories and her stories, to my body, to my inner voice, to the spirit world, to my community, all as a barrier to modernization and development which must at best be destroyed if we are to progress, and at worst be condemned to a multicultural day festival in school.

I can no longer accept a narrative of education that teaches us that physical work in the fields, in my home and in my community, is drudgery and our children’s definition of ‘happiness’ lies in drinking Coca Cola, eating at McDonalds, using Fair and Lovely face whitening creams and chatting on Facebook.

Ways forward

We must call for respecting for the metaphysics of the ‘Other’ as an indispensable requirement for fruitful intercultural dialogue. This think piece calls for wisdoms and insights from different parts of the world, building on and going beyond concept of human development per se, but anchored in ecology as creative capacity building, to human agency and ethical construction of life. I criticize modernity not to destroy it but to transform it by enlarging it. Community can simultaneously be a fount of knowledge and a blessing of moral authority.

In calling for a reimagining of the futures of education, we are all invited to fight the insidious apartheid that occurs with the hierarchization of knowledges that has become ‘normal’ in our daily life and language. Let us invite each other to a commons of knowledge and to a citizenship of the vulnerable.

Catherine A. Odora Hoppers is Professor Extraordinarious of the University of South Africa, Professor in Education of Gulu University-Uganda, and Founder and Director of the Global Institute for Applied Governance in Science, Knowledge Systems and Innovations (Uganda).   She is a scholar and policy specialist on International Development, education, North-South questions, disarmament, peace, and human security.

Cite this article (APA format)
Odora Hoppers, C. A. (22 July 2022) Towards ethical repair and coexistence among knowledge systems. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB.  Retrieved from

Cite this article (MLA format)
Odora Hoppers, Catherine A. "Towards ethical repair and coexistence among knowledge systems". UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 22 July 2022,


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