Sleeping giant: Rethinking science, technology in Africa in light of knowledge integration

Sleeping giant: Rethinking science, technology in Africa in light of knowledge integration


Although there is a knowledge integration momentum sweeping the world in the New Millenium, Africa remains deeply buried and committed to the knowledge disintegration culture of the past centuries of the Modern Era. The structure and function of knowledge at the continent’s university campuses is characterised by increasing dichotomy between Natural Science on the one hand and Arts (Humanities) and Social Science and the other.

The way knowledge is produced and managed remains as ancient as it was in Europe in the 18th century when disciplines (academic tribes of knowledge) emerged mainly as a result of academic conflicts and mind wars in faculties and departments. That is when universities such as Cambridge and Oxford created academic territories: Natural Science, Arts (Humanities) and Social Science to propagate separate broad knowledge fields. Before then science was one, with philosophy being central to it. However, with the rise of faculties, departments and academic tribes in them, philosophy, which used to be a cross-cutting requirement was reduced to a small department in the humanities. Those who graduated with doctor of philosophy degrees were actually without philosophy, just as is still the case today at most university campuses.

Philosophy emphasised producing people who were great thinkers and who could reason interconnectedly and widely. Today we produce people who have difficulty with thinking independently and reason coherently. In fact, there is worry over the decline of critical thinking and reasoning in governance at all levels of society. Academic man, Homo sapiens academicus, of today, is far more simplified in thinking and reasoning than the one in the past. That is why you may have heard some people asking, “Whatever happened to thinking and reasoning?”. Others have asked, “Why is it that the most educated are the worst at thinking and reasoning?”

Blame compartmentalisation of knowledge, specialisation, over-specialisation and engagement of science and technology for disintegration of knowledge for glorification and actualisation of a few at the expense of the whole society.  In the process, intellectual capital and complexity has been eroded in favour of scholasticism, academicism and simplicity.

We can say that science and technology are today done for society, not with society, and for continuing individualisation of society. Ultimately, political governance of society is committed to maintaining and perpetuating the status quo.

In Uganda the new political governors who captured the instruments of power in 1986 through the barrel of the gun introduced what they called “individual merit approach to everything”. They are still committed to it. They have disconnected the educated, and those connected to power, more strongly than was the case in the British colonial era in the country. They have recently penetrated the universities and created even more separation between the three different territories of knowledge: natural science, arts (humanities) and social science in a century of increasing interconnectivity.

Within Natural Science, the Arts and Social Science there is continuing splitting of knowledges to multiply the disciplines (academic tribes), within which research, training, teaching are done to produce human resources at different levels of education. So, the students, teachers, lecturers, senior lecturers, associate professors and professors, we continue to produce and populate our education systems with are nurtured in the small knowledge, but are expected to help us deal with our complex challenges, problems and issues, which cannot be packaged in any of the small knowledges.

The challenges, problems and issues, are interconnected, and require interconnected knowledge, practice and teamwork to confront them for befitting solutions. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We continue to produce graduates we do need to effectively confront those challenges, problems and issues for befitting solutions. The ultimate consequence is that all the solutions emanating from the different cocoons of knowledge end up being new problems with which we have no prior experience. Globally, however, we have realised that science is one and must be researched, taught, managed and applied as one in our increasingly interconnected world with complex, wicked challenges, problems and issues. No individual or groups of individuals, in any territory or academic tribe, can meaningfully and effectively address our challenges, issues and problems without creating new challenges, problems or issues.

Unfortunately, in Africa we are continuing as if there is basically nothing wrong with the structure and function of our universities, the way we organise and manage knowledge, research, teach and learn. We continue to teach and learn as if each of us will become a small professor; meaning that every graduate comes out as pocket of knowledge that is a miniature of that of a professor. As if this is not enough, those who remain at university as lecturers, associate professors and professor communicate to and with each other separately from the rest of society.

Communication is largely through specialised publications called journals, not for solving problems of society, or even those of the university, protection and sustenance of what are called “Standards of Academic Excellence” through selective academic sieving. However, unfortunately, some substandard journals have emerged for purposes of peerism and promotions that compromise quality of education. Besides, there is still a lot of resistance to accept online papers and articles of academics as good enough for promoting academic standards of excellence.

When those from the academia enter the wider society either to perform jobs for development, transformation and progress of society, they manifest as pollutants and roadblocks. In Uganda, many end up entering the murky field of politics, where they abandon, he professional preparation they underwent. They begin to serve power unthoughtfully and sacrifice reason for self-aggrandisement. They become secondarily uneducated and secondarily illiterate. If they read before to keep themselves with the current developments, and wrote papers or articles to keep themselves integral and relevant to the streams of thinking in their fields of knowledge, they increasingly become isolated.

Instead, they manifest as if they are still in their hierarchical universities. Many retain the academic titles they held in the universities as if they are still relevant in the wider society, they find themselves in. They get angry if an ordinary citizen does not recognise them by their titles. They forget that they are no longer knowledge workers. They deteriorate intellectually even more in the intellectually deprived, sociocultural, sociopolitical and socioeconomic environments. It is unlike in the West where once one transcends the boundary between university and society one leaves the title “professor” in the university and starts on the process of reintegration into the wider society but still retain linkages with the intellectual and academic communities in the universities, participating in the production of knowledge and articulating and clarifying issues for society. If they failed, by virtue of their disciplinary training, to work meaningfully in teams or to cultivate teamwork in their universities, they cannot be agents of teamwork, integration and unity in society. They become agents of disintegration and disunity and only work for their stomachs and pockets. They become the new burden of society

You don’t blame them. You blame the education system, which never prepared them to be relevant and necessary resources of the future. These days you have to also blame the culture of individualism entrenched by the current political governors of Africa who preach integration while working to disintegrate society even more for personal economic and political gain.

With that background, let me now focus on the “need rethink governance of science and technology in Africa in light of knowledge integration momentum”.

First it is true that rethinking is superior to thinking. Rethinking is what emanates from critical thinking, critical analysis and evaluation of the past and current situation. It frees us from the past and the way we are accustomed to doing things. It allows us to seriously consider and apply new thinking styles and ways of doing things, usually for the better. Second rethinking governance of science and technology in Africa implies that there is something wrong with the way it is being done; that we must explore other ways of doing it. We have to look at our academies of sciences, national science and technology organisation, university structure and function and the way knowledge is generated, organised and transferred.

Our academies of sciences, and national science and technology governance are related to university structure and function and the products thereof. As I have pointed out many times before, and in this particular article, our universities are structurally and functionally tuned to sow and sustain individualism instead of holism in and of society. Therefore, if we are to change, we must begin with higher education at our university campuses. It is the products of the universities, together with the political governors, who have invariably emanated from the universities, that govern science and technology today.

In Uganda there is now a strong bond between the universities and government to entrench the separation of the sciences (Ats, social science and natural) and individualism by falsely making it appear that natural scientists are superior to their counterparts in the Arts and Social sciences. Accordingly, government’s management of education and technology is structured to propagate separatism and individualism. This is detectable in the National Council of Science and Technology (NCST), National Curriculum Centre (NCC), the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) and the entire education system.

If Africa in general, and Uganda in particular, is to fit in the 21st century and beyond we have to accept rethinking everything. Fortunately, so many thoughts on the need to transit from strictly disciplinary education and, therefore, from disciplinarily educated people and disciplinary organisation of education, have been written globally. Locally there have been attempts by a few scholars to cause a rethinking of higher education in Uganda and Africa. We cannot continue ignoring the knowledge integration momentum sweeping the world since our university education in Africa is integral to the global education mainstream. We need to take the team sciences of interdisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity extradisciplinarity seriously and use them to integrate our higher education in the knowledge integration momentum.

We must begin to use these sciences not only to develop the critical and scientific spirit necessary to create integration in and outside the university. It will enable us to create procedures in learning and teaching to produce graduates we need as the hallmark in governing science and technology differently in the 21st century and beyond. The ultimate is to do science and technology do not for society but with society, which is the imperative today and tomorrow.

Currently we are continuing to disintegrate everything even as we advocate for integration of countries, economies and people. Integration is impossible if we do not have integrated and integrating institutions of higher education to produce for us graduates for the various sectors of the economy and in politics who are really integration minded. Some Africans who are advocating for unity or integration are not only disconnected in their minds, but are doing so for personal, political and economic gain in the true spirit of individualism. 

Real science is found in the integration or team or sustainability or convergence sciences of crossdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and extradisciplinarity; not disciplinarity. We must put them at the centre of rethinking the way we govern science and technology in Africa this century and beyond. We cannot continue to pretend that we don’t know what is happening in global higher education, and refuse to disengage from the past disciplinary styles of governing science and technology. We do so at our own peril. If we continue to ignore the integration momentum, our universities might become the intellectual and academic dinosaurs of the next century, just like the African University of Timbuktu did many centuries ago.

That university contributed to the modern understanding of Islam and academic studies in West Africa during the medieval period. It was an organised scholastic community. It produced many scholars and manuscripts. There were several independent schools of thought. Students often took several different tutors who all specialised in their respective fields of study very much like the way teaching is done at most African University campuses. If they continue that way, they will go the Timbuktu way sooner than later. Therefore, governing science and technology differently in Africa does not only require training and teaching differently.

It requires different planning and managing of education. It requires a rethinking of curriculum at all levels of education to produce graduates who will be integrative in thinking and action and employable, not only in science and technology but in all spheres of human endeavour. It requires total rethinking of education policy to make it futuristic, not momentary or connected to the past to serve selfish political and economic interests such as producing modern day slaves.

Africa must be governed differently, not just for political and economic interests. It must be governed for its own survival but, more important, for the survival of its diverse peoples through a different science and technology that propels science and technology with the people, not for the people. It is possible to evoke the Thirteen Thinking tools of the World’s Most Creative People (see Scott and Michael, 1999; Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein, 2001) away from producing scientists and technologists who cannot think critically, analyse critically and reason critically but can only think, analyse and do to maintain and sustain the status quo or borrow science and technology from elsewhere.

Creative thinking is humanity’s greatest attribute. It must be cultivated via a new science and technology mediated by the World Wide Web, allows for interconnected academic and intellectual communities. The new sciences of crossdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and extradisciplinary can hype it supersonically, and prepare our youth for the future – to influence it and benefit from it rather than be victims of it. We must govern science and technology and science anew with this in mind rather than focusing on the political and economic interests of rulers and leaders.

Creativity isn’t born, it is cultivated using the thirteen tools of thinking: imaging, abstracting, recognising patterns, forming patterns, analogising, “body thinking,” empathising, dimensional thinking, modelling, playing, transforming and synthesising. This is best achieved through, not just disciplinary science, but most effectively through crossdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and extradisciplinarity.

It is for this reason that we need to rethink the governance of science and technology to maximise the benefits of these sciences in Africa this century and beyond. Africa is still a sleeping giant. It can be awakened by the new integrative sciences. It will continue in its slumber well into the future if it persists in relying on disciplinary science alone. No. Africa must wake up to real science and technology.

  • A Tell report / By Prof Oweyegha-Afunaduula, a former professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences of the Makerere University, Uganda
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