Education, Culture and Epistemological Diversity: Mapping a Disputed Terrain
reviewed by Ted Fleming - November 16, 2012
Title: Education, Culture and Epistemological Diversity: Mapping a Disputed Terrain
Author(s): Claudia W. Ruitenberg & D.C. Phillips (eds.)
Publisher: Springer Publishing, New York
ISBN: 9400720653, Pages: 169, Year: 2011
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A coffee house in Jerusalem was an interesting place to commence reading this collection of articles on cultural diversity and epistemology. An amazing diversity of people passed on the street. Tourists, pilgrims and residents, Jews, Moslems and Christians, Europeans, Africans and Asians, men and women along with stall owners, workers and security police. Each of them sees the world through an amazing diversity of perspectives that on the surface seem to give coherence to the place but are probably mutually exclusive and so the machine gun carriers mingle. Each passer-by stands for a particular version of what Israel (or Palestine) means and each is heading to address their God in neighbouring but theologically distant shrines, the Mosque on Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall and further away the Christians Holy Sepulchre.
Many of the most important issues raised in this interesting publication were being acted out on this street. The ultra-orthodox Hassidic community see the Temple, Jerusalem, the ownership of land and the Israeli state in ways that are remarkably different to that of the Arab from East Jerusalem. It would color and shape their views of education too: What should be taught? How should it promote values? What values should be taught? Should the State support education for any or some or all of the multiple perspectives in this rich tapestry of traditions? What views would a woman or a man have that would add another dimension to these perspectives? The epistemological stance of the researcher or student of education is normally articulated in this framework.
However, this edited collection sets out to argue that this is not ones epistemological position but instead a set of beliefs. These beliefs may indeed inform research or our educational thinking and practice. Beliefs are not the same as knowledge. Traditionally, epistemology deals with knowledge and what is known. To involve oneself in the activity of epistemology is to take a more critical and philosophical approach to what is known and how we know rather than stating ones beliefs. To go beyond ones beliefs so that these beliefs are well justified on the basis of sound and critical enquiry is to engage in what is traditionally and philosophically known as epistemology. Not all the things we believe may be justified or labelled as knowledge and preserving this distinction is important for research and education. For a belief to be known there must be justification (or a warrant) so that it stands up to scrutiny and it must be true. It is this validation of knowledge that distinguishes beliefs from epistemology.
Not only does this collection have an unusual format that helps the reader to engage in the debate as to whether different cultures or cultural groups have their own epistemologies, it also explores important educational questions, e.g., do epistemologies produce tenable commitments? The book reviews the main contributions to this debate including the approach taken by Mary Belenkys work on Womens Ways of Knowing. This is a useful way of illustrating the potential for inappropriate assertions that arise when Belenky, by valuing experience, intuition and reflection, incorrectly asserts that these are different forms of knowledge. They are instead womens attitudes and beliefs towards knowledge and not ways of knowing or knowledge. Similar arguments are explored with regard to different races and cultures.
The collection brings clarity to the use of words and language. It also challenges the tendency to argue for reforms and interventions in education that would value the talents of various cultural groups in the curriculum, using an argument based on the inappropriate understanding that such groups have different epistemologies. This rhetorical inflation is well identified and critiqued. Not all the beliefs we have are sufficiently warranted to merit being labelled as knowledge. To make this error undermines the arguments that support multiculturalism. An intervention will be better grounded in support of multiculturalism if we can distinguish what is known from what is believed. A multicultural epistemology must be grounded not on ones beliefs but on an inquiry into the often unquestioned assumptions on which these beliefs are based.
Students and researchers will also find in this work a useful framework for making better thought out assertions about their epistemological position and will be less inclined to make a superficial presentation of beliefs as if they are (in philosophical terms) ones epistemological position. The position that different cultures and genders do not provide people with fundamentally different, and fundamentally inaccessible, forms of knowledge (p. 62) is well argued.
The format of the book with a critical literature review section, a section that analyzes the positions of various key authors on the core issues, the constant raising of practical questions for educators and researchers, as well as the wonderful roundtable conversation between a number of the authors, all make this feel like eavesdropping on a lively group of critical thinkers engaged in an important and hugely relevant debate.