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Cornell summer seminar asks: Should we still use concepts like ‘rationality’ and ‘reason’?

A six-week seminar offered this summer at Cornell University will ask, among other things, “should we continue to use concepts like ‘rationality’ and ‘reason’?”

The course, “Decolonizing Epistemology,” is offered through Cornell’s School of Criticism and Theory. The instructor is Hunter College’s Linda Martín Alcoff whose research interests include feminism, decolonial theory, and the philosophy of race … and she’s recently taught courses titled “Gender and Embodiment” and “New Feminist Epistemologies and Metaphysics.”

At the beginning of the seminar’s description, Alcoff asks

There is a widespread skepticism about many sorts of knowledge claims today, and this skepticism has been promoted from both the right and the left. The skepticism is largely based on the realization that knowledge is always connected to power. But there is uncertainty about what follows from this: is it still ‘knowledge’?

If that question appears, well, worrisome, consider the following which “decolonial work in epistemology” must address (in addition to the questions about rationality and reason):

— Do social identities matter for knowledge claims? How, exactly?
— How is ignorance socially produced, and what is the solution?
— How can science be done in a decolonial way?
— How do we empower traditional and indigenous knowledges?

In order to “advance” the concept of decolonizing epistemology, the description continues, one must “explor[e] the ways in which the disenfranchised have been epistemically discredited [in order to] develop new insights and theories about the general nature of knowledge and of knowers.”

Knowledge itself must be questioned … in order to effect social change.

Such a concern isn’t new. Cornell’s fellow Ivy Princeton University offered a course this past spring titled “Science After Feminism” which asked that although science “is commonly held to be the objective, empirical pursuit of natural facts about the world,” could “the presence or absence of women (and another marginalized individuals) lead to the production of different kinds of scientific knowledge?”

Furthermore, at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, students known as “Fallists” — short for “Science Must Fall” — said that if decolonization is to be complete, even science, a product of racism, must be “scratched off.”

Back in 2012, Professor Alcoff posited that a spike in gun sales after Barack Obama’s re-election (the “end of ‘Anglo Saxon’ domination over the United States”) was a signal that white people were arming themselves for a race war against Hispanics.

Unsurprisingly, she even went so far as to make a Nazi Germany comparison, too.

Read more about the course (and others).

MORE: Princeton course: Is science ‘gendered, racialized, ableist’?

MORE: University students say science should be ‘scratched’

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 20 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.