The Merchants of Knowledge

by Thursday.

Recently a friend asked me what would happen if universities were abolished. When I queried as to how she meant, she said: well, you wouldn’t need to specialise at all! You could start your own room and sit there & say I know X about Y let me share what I know with you. & you can share that with someone else, and so on. Nobody charges for knowledge, because everyone has access to it, & can question & query. No more hierarchy of student-teacher. No more worrying about paying too much for a mainstream view that erases so many. Create a structure that is non-hierarchical, encourages critical thinking, & participation is based on what you want to know.

I was speechless.

But you know duckies, she had a point.

In the Islamic Golden Age, there were scholars in the mosques who taught specific subjects. They had cushions or chairs and their audience sat around them. Someone could walk in and ask, “Where is the chair of mathematics?” or “Where is the chair of astronomy?” & be directed there. They could attend as many times as they wished & stop the instruction simply by leaving. It’s from this we received the modern university — and would you believe it, the heads are still called Chairs.

The current university system treats knowledge as a commodity & self-perpetuates that. First, they have a knowledge class, a group of people who control what gets out & to whom. Secondly, they ensure that other groups don’t get to the same level. This is rather easily done, if you look at it, the library at University of Delhi is far smaller and much less well-stocked than one say, at a university in London. Subscriptions to places like JSTOR are unthinkable, because they are so expensive. & when you graduate, chances are your degree is not going to be accepted overseas because there is no medicine other than that of the Big Pharma. & thirdly, they make sure dissidents have no room to act. I walked into my International Political Economy class and was veritably shocked that everyone already knew other countries were being exploited, but spoke about it with coldness. Even when aware of the unfairness of things, we were still treating them as theories to be ridiculed or mastered, not considering how they affect people’s lives practically. I remember writing a paper on Partition for my exam, and upon getting a low mark, I asked my teacher what I had done wrong & he said, “You took it too personally.”

But you see, the commodity knowledge is presumably objective, when we as human beings cannot truly possess objective knowledge: it is always, always filtered through our perceptions. Even when entering the social justice community, one immediately has to familiarise oneself with the hierarchy of knowledge that exists. A community that is supposed to champion the myriad of human experience where knowledge-as-commodity erases diversity and divorces us from our personhood. & you can see that, because around activists there is still a teacher-student perception when privileged people treat a marginalised person as a learning experience, or when people treat us as convenient access points, or even looking at the cult of personality that springs up around certain people. I can perhaps illustrate this best using people who are “feminists” for a living, or a particular Anti-Racist Who Never Fails to Grate Thursday’s cheese. They — either consciously or unconsciously — don’t treat social justice as a practical deconstruction that affects the lives of people, and — either consciously or unconsciously — engage in yet more erasure of marginalised experience, because they control who has it, who speaks about it, and who it filters out to.

We must first create non-hierarchical, participatory environments that empower us. We as activists must first devise ways to de-stratify, de-commodify knowledge. I share what I know with you, so we learn.

Now, where’s my cult? :P


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