Pedagogy of Conflict: “Knowledge as Action; Action as Change”

by Pushpa Iyer, Director

Philosophy, commonly understood as the way we think about things and therefore act accordingly, is not something that can be articulated and neither is it that something that everyone adopts. Instead, we could teach and learn about adopting a philosophical approach –the pursuit of knowledge – which in turn will shape our thoughts and our acts.

It is my strong belief that once we acquire knowledge, it is impossible not to act on it. Rarely do we gather knowledge and not do something with that information. Knowledge defines or changes the way we act. Knowledge is, therefore, inevitable action. And when I founded the Center for Conflict Studies (CCS) in 2011, “Knowledge as Action; Action as Change” became its slogan.

However, subsequently and more recently, I have become very conscious of qualifying “action.” Action needs to be strategic. The news of rapes in India have been disturbing but even more disturbing has been the action that has followed with women’s and human rights groups protesting against what they see in simplistic terms: rapes in a patriarchal society. Well, did we not know that Indian society was highly patriarchal as more and more people came forward in public on incidences of rape? Instead, the attention got focused on the “growing incidence of rapes” – without much evidence on the “growth” of rapes. Much of the action seemed to be based on rhetoric – a highly politicized, emotional rhetoric that is not based on informed knowledge. But then, the question is: How does one separate the rhetoric from raw information in contexts of high emotion, trauma and crisis, which is true for every conflict situation?

Strategic action is possible only when one is constantly seeking knowledge. Again, how does one seek knowledge and what kind of knowledge? How does one overcome personal biases, selective perception and selective hearing when seeking Knowledge? A philosophical approach to knowledge where one seeks to really “understand” the problem, which then defines the approach we take in resolving that problem, seems most appropriate.

In fact, I would say that having a philosophical approach to the pursuit of knowledge is a key requirement for someone in the field of conflict studies. There needs to be an almost insatiable need to pursue knowledge; the more information we have the higher the chances are of us making an informed and holistic analysis of the conflict situation. And being critical, comprehensive and clear when sifting through knowledge acquired are key skills and attributes of a conflict resolver.

A key challenge for the teacher: How do you get someone who acts with the possession of knowledge to be more philosophical? This is especially acute in the classrooms today where the urge to act and even the pressure to act is strong given that we exist in the information overload era. Information today is received from every corner of the world through a variety of sources. Besides, information flow is constant. The time to receive, process and clarify information and to therefore turn it into “knowledge” gets classified as a long drawn-out process that is almost inappropriate given the fast-paced world in which we live. How then can the merits of taking a philosophical approach to the pursuit of knowledge be taught and encouraged?

The field of conflict studies presents a very strong case for why analysis is the key to resolution. The field suggests that the better the analysis, the greater the possibility of finding a resolution for an intractable problem. As such, the students of this field spend much time in applying a variety of theories to a case, not just to “understand” but also as a process for seeking more information. So, in a way, the analytical approach, true to the field, is almost a philosophical approach to pursuing and processing knowledge. Using this kind of analytical knowledge paves the way for good resolution tactics and even solutions. It also gives the conflict intervener enough tools to understand why some problems defy solution. Most importantly, as with any knowledge acquisition, the more we understand, the more humble we are in terms of what we do not know and the more we find ways to seek further knowledge. In short it makes one adopt a personally more philosophical approach to seeking knowledge.

An important message is that philosophical pursuit of knowledge does not have to be time consuming, something that one does sitting around drinking cups and cups of tea. Instead, the philosophical approach becomes such a natural part of one’s thinking process that oftentimes one hardly realizes that is taking any extra time to question or clarify information. Instead it becomes the most natural way to acquire knowledge and understand it.

Undoubtedly, this philosophical approach to knowledge will lead to more strategic action and not knee-jerk reactions in highly intense conflict situations. The slogan “Knowledge as Action; Action as Change” can be really empowering when we clarify that there must be a philosophical approach to knowledge which in turn will lead to a strategic action.

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