What is knowledge?

March 13, 1998

Stephen Howe ("Blinded by Blackness", THES, February ) raises important questions about Afrocentrism that require fuller analysis to reappraise the nature of knowledge per se.

However, the view he puts forward about the rise of Afrocentrism in the United States needs to be reviewed from a broader perspective.

Over the centuries the Eurocentric and Anglocentric notions of knowledge and its legitimacy in academe have led to the rise of exclusive and siege mentalities among groups who feel that their languages, histories and knowledges have been excluded from the mainstream curricula.

In order to attempt to develop a common and shared curriculum with inclusive and democratic values it is important to look again at knowledge exclusions by dominant groups as Martin Bernal's important historiographic work has attempted to do.

Some of the strident critiques of his work embody the strongly held views of the centrality of European knowledge. The challenge is how to break from this Eurocentric straitjacket.

In this sense all forms of "centrisms" themselves need to be engaged with, to develop a more universal understanding of human knowledge.

From this perspective the curriculum ought to draw from human culture as a whole. As Edward Said writes in Race Identity and Representation in Education (Edited by Cameron McCarthy and Warren Crichlow, Routledge, 1993): "The whole effort to deconsecrate Eurocentrism cannot be interpreted, least of all by those who participate in the enterprise, as an effort to supplant Eurocentrism with, for instance, Afrocentric or Islamocentric approaches. On its own, ethnic particularity does not provide for intellectual process - quite the contrary" (p.311).

In terms of tackling particularistic knowledge we need to go beyond limited notions of corrective or ground-clearing functions as Howe asserts, to a more fundamental reconsideration of knowledge.

Jagdish Gundara. Head of International Centre for Intercultural studies, Institute of Education, Bedford Way London

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