Equity, human rights and inclusive knowledge

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Vanaja Dhruvarajan, Carleton University
Guest Contributor

Universities are one of the most important sites of knowledge production. Open and inclusive dialogue contributes generously to the knowledge commons. It allows all of us to take advantage of new insights and perspectives. The need for such a site for knowledge production is more important today than ever as the processes of globalization accelerate, the world shrinks and people of varied backgrounds comingle with each other. Becoming aware of multiple worldviews and understanding diverse perspectives on life and living, paves the way for the development of mutual respect among people. Issues of equity and justice can be addressed effectively only in a climate of mutual respect.

Universities are in a unique position to provide conditions for the development of that climate of mutual respect. The decades of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s saw a bourgeoning of efforts towards that end. Those were the heady days when several social movements for change, including the women’s movement, were thriving. As the academic arm of this movement, the women’s studies departments provided conditions that enabled the production of knowledge by and about women and from varied women’s perspectives. Research and publications during this time changed the way women were perceived and valued. These efforts also led to the transformations of many of the academic disciplines, where women’s lives became a valid field of enquiry.

In my discipline of Sociology, gender inclusive language became the norm in almost all textbooks. Issues of concern to women such as violence against women, pay equity and child care became legitimate topics for policy-relevant research and publication. Inclusion of perspectives of scholars from different backgrounds also broadened notions such as ‘the normal family.’ Sociologists proceeded to study more diverse family forms.

Women of colour scholars were struggling to establish that difference was not a deficit, and gender, race or ethnic difference need not be understood in a hierarchy. There was recognition that organizational culture and the structures of power and privilege could lead to hierarchical and exclusionary outcomes. To counter such tendencies one should study, for example, religion in a comparative religion course in such a way that we do not end up saying somehow one religion is intrinsically superior to another.

As the struggle to produce inclusive knowledge was in full swing, the 1990’s rolled on and with the 20th century the hegemony of neoliberalism came into vogue. As government funding dwindled, corporate funding of university programs became the order of the day. With corporate agenda dominating the university agenda, issues related to accessibility, diversity, equity and justice gradually started to recede to the background. With the funding cuts, the women’s movements’ activities in the larger society also started to shrink. Women’s studies departments were cut or marginalized as the academy seemed to become the handmaiden of corporate interests. Establishing patents and copyrights became more important than social wellbeing or notions of the public good and within the academy, the production of inclusive knowledge and addressing issues of human rights, equity and social justice also were sidelined.

The recent economic crisis seems to be leading to a gradual realization of the futility of the culture of greed, at least in some segments of population. The time is right for the academy to reclaim its role as the producer of inclusive knowledge and to focus on broader notions of public good. Instead of research shrouded in secrecy to get competitive advantage in search of patents and copyrights, there could be more open dialogue and discussion that facilitates cooperation and social wellbeing. Faculty could start sharing their ideas and contributing to the knowledge commons, thus establishing inclusivity and open access as hallmarks of academic life. Concern for equity and justice can become worthwhile endeavors of a socially engaged university.

Such a vision for an engaged university committed to inclusive knowledge also requires an inclusive faculty, curriculum, and administration. It means recognizing the value of having professors from varied backgrounds who teach and research from multiple perspectives. This is not to suggest that there is no place for empathy, nor do I question the ability of individuals to view the world from different perspectives. We learn to empathize with the predicaments of a woman of colour faculty member, for example, when we can draw on knowledge produced by women of colour scholars using their own critical perspectives informed by real life experiences that have been marked by gender, race or other social location. There is ample evidence to suggest that knowledge monopolies can lead to domination and exploitation of marginalized people and devaluation of their cultures.

Inclusive curriculum is important for understanding how multiple solutions are available to the myriad problems we encounter in life. The knowledge produced from multiple perspectives should be integrated into the core curriculum of the academy and be made accessible – open access – to a wide student body and the general public. Marginalizing and ghettoizing some knowledge systems and privileging others does not help to solve challenges of achieving equity and justice. For example, it should be common knowledge that in most cultures, whether European or Indian, a distinction is made between, say, classical and folk traditions in music and arts in general. The point is that not all music from India can be considered as belonging to folk tradition as may be assumed in the absence of an inclusive curriculum.

Inclusive administration is required to make sure that these agendas are prioritized and implemented in an even-handed manner. I do not believe that these are an idealist’s dream; I am suggesting that they can – and should – be put into practice. In fact the academy can be a place where cutting edge ideas emerge to solve the problems currently faced by humanity, thereby paving the way for all of us to live in harmony and in a context of mutual respect.

Inclusive knowledge, curriculum and administration can produce leaders and opinion makers that are committed to making a difference in areas of human rights, equity and social justice, especially in these times when the potential for misunderstandings remain a challenge.

Vanaja Dhruvarajan is an Adjunct professor in the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies and the Department of Sociology, Carleton University. Email:


Equity Matters