Do we learn to be blind? Epistemic blindness and the role of education
Picture by Christos Simis.
Our world today is ripe with moral issues, from climate change, poverty, inequality and exploitation all the way to everyone’s favorite topic of the past year: the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be argued that in order to be addressed adequately these issues require some sort of social transformation. If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you are already familiar with the concept. But how can this transformation be achieved? I would like to focus on one topic that is, in my opinion, not discussed enough neither in academic nor public discourses, namely what I call epistemic blindness and the role education plays in regard to it. My hypothesis is that current educational systems, especially in the West, convey a narrative of knowledge which is presented as universal and ubiquitous, but is a narrative that carries a heavy historical weight of domination and oppression from the age of European Colonialism. In what follows, I will try to provide an argument about why I think this is morally problematic. But first things first, let’s talk about knowledge in general and the conditions that give rise to this problem in the first place.
“Science”, “Wissenschaft” or „episteme“ (hence “epistemic blindness”) is an endeavor concerned with knowledge. We deem knowledge to be important, for without it, human civilization would not be where it is today (for better or worse!). Accordingly, possessing knowledge constitutes an advantage over not possessing it. Think of hunter-gatherer societies tens of thousands of years ago or surviving in the wilderness during a zombie apocalypse. Knowing whether the berries or mushrooms one finds in the woods are poisonous or not makes a life-or-death difference. But what counts as knowledge and who is to say what is knowledge and what isn’t? Regardless of whether this question can be answered definitively or not, one thing is certain: Being in a position to determine what is knowledge and what isn’t provides a competitive advantage. After all, “knowledge is power” as the well-known aphorism postulates. And what better way to seize this power than being in possession of the “stamp of approval” for what counts as knowledge?
Coming back to my hypothesis from above, the modern conception of knowledge bears the stamp of approval that the colonial expansion of the past five centuries gave to the European thought tradition. Epistemic domination can be traced back to a form of epistemic arrogance; an attitude I call – paraphrasing Sir Francis Bacon – “it’s the best and there can be no other”. The consequence of such an attitude is what Walter Mignolo calls “geopolitics of knowledge”. According to Mignolo the European conception of knowledge spread and practically eradicated any other conceptions of knowledge stemming from other cultural spaces. The stronger European hegemony grew in economic, sociopolitical and cultural terms, the more the Eurocentric conception of knowledge consolidated its domination on a global scale.
Even if all this is true, this was centuries ago. What does this mean today? It can be argued that the modern conception of knowledge is directly linked with European colonial expansion and its resulting cultural and epistemic domination. Thus, the aforementioned attitude is so deeply engrained in the modern way of thinking that people cannot see it. Hence, we, the “modern” people of this world, have learned to be blind to our own epistemic arrogance. During my internship at the State Chancellery of North-Rhine Westphalia, I used to attend parliamentary plenary meetings and listen to politicians yell at and accuse each other of ignorance. As entertaining as that was, it is also very sad. For it illustrates this exact attitude that as long as I discredit my opponents and I proclaim epistemic authority, I win. In other words: “I know best and you are a charlatan!”
What does education have to do with all this? Well, quite a lot. Education fundamentally shapes people’s perception of the world, both material and immaterial, including their conception of knowledge. It provides the tools to discern, acquire, produce and apply knowledge to both understand the world and shape it. An education based on the Eurocentric conception of knowledge is, however, highly problematic, because it perpetuates epistemic domination rooted in colonial history. If that is the case, then the social transformation which is arguably necessary to address the global issues mentioned at the beginning, cannot occur without a transformation of education away from epistemic colonialism.
So, what can be done? Being aware of and able to identify this issue is a good first step. For this everyone needs to be able to critically reflect on their own paradigms of knowledge, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. My education was definitely based on the Eurocentric conception of knowledge. How about yours?
Christos Simis has studied philosophy and education sciences in Thessaloniki (GR) and Muenster as well as ethics, politics and economics in Bochum. Currently, he is a PhD candidate at the LMU in Munich on “Virtue Cosmopolitanism: Towards a Decolonial Approach to Cosmopolitan Education”.
Bacon, F. (1889). Novum Organum. (T. Fowler, Ed.) Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Mignolo, W. (2002). The geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial difference. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 101(1), 57-96.