University cooperation for equity and empathy

By Johan Galtung

China Three Gorges University, Yichang, 23 Apr 2014

A great honor to open the 11th university cooperation conference of N.E.W.S–North-East-West-South—founded in 1993 at the Freie Universität, Berlin by S.P. Park.

Classical university cooperation across borders has professors teaching in one country students from other countries. Thus, when Copenhagen ruled Denmark-Norway 1397-1814 Norwegians studied at the University of Copenhagen, founded in 1479. The University in Oslo came in 1811, but the asymmetry continued; some of it necessary and useful, but not ideal. Missing was equity, “I learn from you, you from me”; missing was empathy, “You learn about me, I about you”. The teaching country is superior in power, shaping the minds in the learning country. But the learning country learns about the deeper features of the teaching country, not vice versa.

A colonial relation. The colonialist leader, England – also in Scotland-Wales-Ireland – imports raw students for processing at huge fees, and exports English as patented commodity with no processing rights. Major industries both; but learning nothing about the world. Of course old knowledge must flow from those with more to those with less, even if professors often exaggerate their own importance: students may learn more together and by self-study–maybe 10%-40%-50%. But professors monopolize exams and diplomas, so better absorb well.

And new knowledge must be produced by searching and re-searching. But that easily leads to a gap between producer and consumer countries coinciding with that between teaching and learning countries. Producer countries monopolize the criteria for valid knowledge: theirs.

International university cooperation risks reinforcing a doubly asymmetric world with minds being shaped and knowledge distributed one way, and deep insights the other. Basic question: how can we organize university cooperation more equitably with empathy in both directions?

Another inter-university center, IUC, was started in 1973 in Dubrovnik Yugoslavia, now Croatia, by the University of Zagreb. Yugoslavia, non-aligned in the Cold War, was between East and West, (leaning toward West), and between North and South, developed in North–Slovenia-Croatia– developing in South–Montenegro-Macedonia (leaning toward North). And ideal meeting ground at the time.

This author was the first Director-General 1973-77, with freedom to develop the IUC, and to think and rethink structure and function. Universities from all over the world–in practice mostly Northwest–joined as members, and were encouraged to participate actively.

The basic unit was the course, typically four weeks. The field could be traditional or new–at that time woman-peace-development-environment studies. Professors, called “resource persons” and student “participants” were drawn from member universities covering salaries for the former and often stipends for the latter. However, the IUC became quickly so popular that both paid for themselves, combining with vacation. IUC benefitted from the huge and cheap hotel capacity in a major tourist resort outside the tourist season.

There were “classes”, two hours before and two after lunch, with rooms available for dialogue groups after that; six hours. Resource persons and member universities donated some books to the library for self-study. Then they all disappeared into countless coffee-houses and pubs–and the dialogues continued. Very different perspectives across the resource person-participant divide met for dialogue and mutual learning. They were all shaken out of daily routines and forced to question mindsets uncontested at home. Countless testimonies carried the same message: the most exciting academic experience in their lives. And not only academic: also marriages.

The third week was problematic: participants at high level, but new resource persons not. Dialogues Sunday night proved useful.

This multilateral, equitable format is strongly recommended and is found in many places in many variations. But rather than across the outmoded East-West and North-South divides the focus might be on the civilization divides. One such divide is between the West–Northwest, Judeo-Christian-secular to be more precise–and the Rest, a mix of the Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Japanese, indigenous. The topic for a course could be anything, but the resource persons should be encouraged to try to make explicit their angle, discourse.

Furthermore, that brings up a major problem: the West may say, we have no angle, no Western discourse, we are simply scientific, objective, and even have a message to the world: do likewise. And they may be echoed by academics who have absorbed the Western message all over the world; from the horses’ own mouths, at Western universities, or indirectly from countless textbooks.

To leave the illusion of universal objective science multilateral dialogical courses on international relations, focused on patriarchy vs parity, security vs peace, growth vs development, humans vs nature might be useful. The joint search for common ground is fascinating.

And that leads us to a deeper field for university cooperation: joint exploration of epistemology, the criteria for valid knowledge. The West is unwilling-unable to see the limitations of the cartesian-aristotelian focus on atomism and deductivism, giving the past the final word on truth through empiricism. And China is unwilling-unable to recognize its own indebtedness to the daoist focus on holism and yin/yang dialectics pointing beyond the past, trying to look Western.

Imagine a four-week cooperative seminar with many universities about how to think (re-search), speak (also teach) and act (praxis) in the fields of international relations and epistemology; great NEWS!

Inspired by the beauty and strength of the Yangtze River and the Three Gorges–for a smooth, pacific, both-and, come-together.

Originally published at Transcend Media Service here.

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