A consensus exists in South Africa (SA) and probably the rest of the world regarding the role of community engagement towards social transformation and social responsiveness in the higher education sector, mainly departing from Boyer’s notion of multiple scholarships, namely scholarship of discovery, integration, application, teaching and engagement.This article seeks to discuss the discourse of community engagement in higher education with particular focus on the role of community engagement in the development of knowledge in a South African context of 110 The Role of Community Engagement in Higher Education marginalization, poverty and underdevelopment for most communities. This article derives from the emerging discourse about the challenges in structuring community engagement in higher education in South Africa.
Firstly, there is no discipline called community engagement in higher education, implying that it will have different meanings to different people in different disciplines. For it to be effective however, it is argued, community engagement has to be an integral part of all disciplines. Secondly, community engagement lacks theorization and therefore raises concern as to whether it contributes to information or to what form of knowledge. If it does contribute either way, the question is which measure or criterion is used to place the knowledge generated appropriately.According to Hall, there is still a level of apprehension about community engagement as a legitimate area of scholarly inquiry.Furthermore, identifying what kind of knowledge is appropriate for the citizen is of special concern in South Africa. More and more, knowledge that does not contribute in meeting the basic development needs of the increasingly impoverished populations is challenged, probably as ‘knowledge for knowledge sake.’ We fear the re-incarnation of academic elitism. New constructs are emerging such as ‘strong knowledge’ and ‘weak knowledge.’ Reference to ‘useful knowledge’ as if there is already a universal verdict on what it is therefore is worrisome. It is problematic to define what useful knowledge is without involving the ‘users’ in the process of defining.
Furthermore, a community of practice, which should include society’s knowledge keepers, and which seeks to square society’s knowledge with that of higher education intellectuals should be developed. We agree with the notion that for developing countries to address issues of poverty and sustainable development there should be interaction of all forms of knowledge namely practical knowledge, local wisdom, intellectualization, theorization in an equitable manner.
2. The Concept ‘Community Engagement’ There are many definitions of community engagement that seem to emerge from a contextual basis, the understanding of people defining it and the reasons thereof. Whilst it is understood that the definitions are not necessarily confined to the geography, for most universities, the geography is still an important point of departure. This article departs from contemporary notions that universitycommunity engagement (also known as civic engagement) is driven by epistemological developments, the changing sociohistorical context of the university in a global and knowledge society, and the drive to generate research and knowledge aimed at addressing social and economic problems with others outside the university. The Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land Grant Universities came to the conclusion that seven guiding characteristics seem to define an engaged Vhonani Netshandama and Sechaba Mahlomaholo institution across context are (1) responsiveness (2) respect for partners (3) academic neutrality (4) accessibility (5) integration (6) coordination and (7) partnerships.The White Paper on the Transformation of Higher Education laid the foundations for making community service an integral part of higher education in South Africa.5 The Higher Education Quality Committee of the Council of Higher Education (CHE) defines ‘community engagement’ as follows:
Initiatives and processes through which the expertise of the HE institution in the areas of teaching and research are applied to address issues relevant to its community.3. Knowledge Development To introduce the discussion on knowledge development and what community engagement has to offer, we borrow from Kaphagawani and Malherbe’s view that knowledge is the means by which we direct our behavior to achieve our ends most efficiently and successfully.7 This article reaffirms the notion that knowledge is a human construction that by definition has a human purpose hence its association with status and power dynamics in a society.
The challenge to get an inclusive way to re-codify forms of knowledge and the processes of knowledge development cannot be underestimated. This may include a focused endeavor to redefine the character of intellectuals and scholars to acknowledge the previous marginalized knowledge that were often regarded as ‘weak’ knowledge or information. From a constructivist perspective, knowledge arises from people’s social, cultural and historical experiences. The problem that most society in South Africa share with the rest of Africa is that knowledge development and the decisions regarding what knowledge is excluded the socio-cultural and historical experiences of the powerless impoverished majority. Community engagement would therefore integrate these populations into the processes of developing and codifying knowledge.
Through this paper, we also wish to emphasize the importance of practicing in good faith as scholars and or intellectuals and to be both inclusive and trustworthy in interpreting and representing the arguments and knowledge of our society. Deriving from a constructivist perspective, we assume that different knowledge is produced within different social domains and that there is no obvious or transparent way to transfer from one to the next. Rather than concluding, that only some activities can produce ‘higher order thinking’ of ‘strong knowledge,’ higher education and the society should engage with the hope view to reach some level of consensus on what useful knowledge is and should be for that domain, as opposed to whether the 112 The Role of Community Engagement in Higher Education knowledge generated fit into the existing forms of knowledge or what is referred by some scholars as the codified forms of knowledge, however determined. According to Dei, no knowledge is neutral, objective, absolute or value free. It is embedded in the people’s cultural, social and political lives.Upon tracking the knowledge development discourse in SA, one finds Johann Muller’s’ arguments, Michelson’s response, and Hall, Slamat and Nongxa’s in the CHE’s’ Kagisano publications best suited to be used in the context of this article, which seeks to contextually position the role of community engagement in knowledge development in higher education institutions debates in South Africa.Muller puts forth some crucial questions thus:
How can or should the common-sense knowledge of experience and local culture, indeed of the everyday world, relate to the codified knowledge deemed worthy of inclusion and certification in the formal curriculum How, and under what conditions, can vertical discourse be assessed outside formal contexts of transmission What should the relationship be between informal and formal knowledge, globalizing and local knowledge systems, ‘cultural knowledge and skills’ and ‘skills and knowledge for economic productivity’Part of the response to the questions above was a suggestion to re-codify knowledge. Whilst we generally understand the line of questioning, we also agree to some contrasting views such as those raised by Michelson in his response to Muller who argued that; ‘The classification of things reproduces the classification of men - Durkheim and Mauss, Primitive Classification.’ If this is indeed true, what then is the solution towards acknowledging what has previously been discriminated as uncodified, unclassified knowledge, from which we are arguing integration in this article Who should be given social agency to re-define this as both an epistemological and political question Whose experience of the past and whose vision of the future will be considered credible Whose modest testimony will be allowed to contribute to a shared understanding of the nature of the world If we are to dream a better future, we will have to attend to practical knowledge and local wisdom. Is access to formal knowledge a solution Curriculum embodies the values and habits of the group that has won the struggle for symbolic mastery. What the disadvantaged need is access to that cultural capital. Therefore, we argue that community engagement function should be able to deal with these questions in an equitable manner.
Vhonani Netshandama and Sechaba Mahlomaholo 4. Engagement as Dialogue The theory of communicative action by Habermas offers a basis for the argument about dialogue as a form of engagement in higher education.
‘Free and uncoerced communication,’ as the theory puts it, is necessary.Currently, few institutions show evidence of structured dialogue with communities. Often, the dialogue is ad hoc and reactional rather than proactive integration of the community voices in the institutional planning, curriculum process and research cycles. Few institutions show evidence of structured dialogue and deliberations with communities in their strategy and reports. Gibbons, in a paper presented at the 2006 Council for Higher Education Conference refers to contextualisation as ‘Community Engagement and Higher Education’ calls for ‘contextualisation’, a process that requires a move from ‘reliable knowledge’ to the production of ‘socially robust knowledge’ that is repeatedly tested in a range of environments.Gibbons employs the metaphor of the ‘agora’ to describe this as:
the sites of problem formulation and negotiation have moved from their previous institutional domains in government, industry and universities into the agora. The agora refers collectively to the public space in which ‘science and the public meet,’ and in which the public ‘speaks back’ to science. The agora should consist of many domains in which contextualisation occur. It should be the space in which societal and scientific problems are being framed and defined, and where ‘solutions’ are negotiated.
According to Gibbons, it is the space, par excellence, for the production of ‘socially robust knowledge.’Spaces for dialogue between higher education and society require that both parties in some levels have the need to develop to something beyond where they were before the dialogue begun. Currently the practices are such that CE activities are usually driven to academic conceptions with often very little time if any allocated to establishing a common understanding. What then is community engagement for, and for whom What role can it play in answering questions around its theorization 5. Reflection in Action - Ways of Knowing and Engagement Donald Schn made monumental contributions to the development of a postmodern scholarly epistemology in his seminal work of the 1980s when he borrowed from the studio tradition in the arts and professions to describe a process he called ‘reflection in action.’15 His main arguments were that reflection on the interaction of theory and practice is the core intellectual activity that should run through faculty research, teaching and learning.
114 The Role of Community Engagement in Higher Education Schn coined the term ‘reflective practitioner’ in calling for faculty engagement in the consequences of faculty work.
Shortly before his death, a decade later, Schn argued that institutions and faculty members alike must adopt a new epistemology in order to practice Boyer’s multiple scholarships referred to in a previous section. He contended that ‘action research,’ his term for a scholarship of community engagement requires not only that institutions and faculty members move beyond the epistemology of technical rationality conferred on the scholarship of discovery but that they also engage in ‘reflective action research.’ According to Schn, reflective action research obligates scholars to reflect on both their scholarly knowing and their scholarly methodologies in an ongoing way.We argue for the reconstruction of the Freirerian notion of empowerment education. Freire argued that knowledge should be embedded to a context in order to be useful to the community.17 The emphasis is on creating a dialogue among group members and on sharing experiences and interpretations. In addition to group dialogue and understanding the social dimensions of problems, Freire argues that true learning requires acting in the world, thus, a Freirerian program would emphasize action and subsequent reflection as key to the learning process.
6. Concluding Arguments Through this article, we argue that the divide between higher education and society by implication perpetuates academic elitism and the notion that only academia can contribute to knowledge development. We see community engagement as a space or spaces for interacting forms of knowledge. We ask that the composition of knowledge development spaces (round tables, workshops, symposia, etc) should be inclusive as it should be the dialogue towards knowing and co-owning the processes. We ask that community engagement in higher education should provide a platform for interacting forms of knowledge to promote inclusivity and partnership in knowledge development.
We ask of knowledge gatekeepers to practice in good faith and to drive the deliberation in an inclusive manner. We caution that the time may not be right yet (unless there is evidence of inclusivity of intellectuals and of society in the discussion) to start developing templates for community engagement in higher education, thus challenging traditional notions of strong and weak knowledge and transformation in the manner in which we view knowledge development processes. We propose a de-construction and reconsideration of the epistemologies introduced by scholars such as Schn’s reflection in action.Vhonani Netshandama and Sechaba Mahlomaholo Notes E Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton, NJ, 1990.
M Hall, ‘Community Engagement in South African Higher Education:
Debating Community Engagement’, in Kagisano No. 7, Council on Higher Education, Pretoria, 2008, p. 1-35.
ibid., p. 2.
N Curthoys, ‘Future Directions for Rhetoric - Invention and Ethos in Public Critique’, in Australian Humanities Review, March - April 2001, viewed on 11 April 2001, www.lc.unsw.edu.au/onlib/pdf/biblio.pdf.