Knowledge and responsibility


Image courtesy of Michelle Meiklejohn /

Last week I was at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference, and this week I am at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference. I have been thinking about ‘knowledge’, the ‘application’ of knowledge, and the ‘how’ of that application.

At the AERA opening plenary, Linda Tuhiwai Smith spoke on the conference theme of “To Know is Not Enough”. She spoke about what it means to know, how ‘coming to know’ is intertwined with ‘coming into being’, and knowing as including both outward/empirical as well as inward/insightful knowing. Linda T. Smith also spoke about the responsibility that comes with knowing – such that knowing is an interweaving of balancing, responsibility, relationships, and acting. She argued that despite all that we know, we are not changing the system – perhaps due to fear of change, or lack of political will. Linda T. Smith emphasized that the world of ‘beyond knowing’ – where we endeavour for transformation – must be entered at all stages of the knowledge process – even before entering research. She challenged those in the audience to take risks, to ask difficult questions, to think inwardly and outwardly, and to think about contexts – and how to prepare those contexts for knowledge and change, throughout the research/knowledge process. Finally, Linda T. Smith emphasized that it is not just what we know but who we are that matters – in this environment, as researchers, as people.

In many ways I agree with Linda T. Smith that we have a responsibility to share and act upon knowledge/research. However, I see risks in thinking that we ‘know’ enough and in acting upon that ‘knowledge’ without critical thought.

Yesterday, I was at an interesting CIES session on early literacy. Helen Abadzi argued that we know enough in cognitive neuroscience to be able to apply that understanding (of working memory, information processing, etc.) to literacy interventions in low-income countries. A few people in the audience brought up questions that challenged this. One person wondered how we can be sure that we know enough in the field of cognitive neuroscience – when in the past we also thought we knew enough and then later realized we didn’t. Another person challenged the panelists to remember the historical (and current) damages imposed on indigenous/native populations by European researchers who thought/think they know better in applying their so-called ‘knowledge’.

What is knowledge, when does knowledge become knowledge?

Knowledge is socially constructed – shaped by the particular social, cultural, and political contexts in which we live and ‘know’. At a CIES session yesterday on methodology, Patricia Gavira spoke about her research work in Nunavut and Greenland. She defined ‘context’ as being born when two people (or beings) meet. She also shared that through her work she had learned from Inuit elders that knowledge does not happen in one’s individual head but rather it is created in the space between two or more beings. For me, this was a really powerful depiction of the idea of knowledge being socially constructed.

What responsibility comes with knowledge? And how do we apply knowledge?

I am quite sure Linda T. Smith was not referring to self-assured arrogant imposition of one’s ‘knowledge’ when she spoke about the responsibility to share and act upon research. In fact I would like to believe that implicit in the argument for ‘responsibility’ is being responsible for yourself – to be humble, to listen, to ‘ask difficult questions’ as she said, and to constantly engage in inward and outward (collaborative) dialogue and reflection towards transformation.

So, as we participate in the creation, sharing, and application of knowledge – through conferences and through other academic and professional work, let us all strive to be ‘responsible’ with that knowledge – ‘responsible’ in all senses of the word.

Sadaf Shallwani

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