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Globalization and the Geopolitics of Knowledge: The Role of the Humanities in the Corporate University
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Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 97-119

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Globalization and the Geopolitics of Knowledge
The Role of the Humanities in the Corporate University

Walter D. Mignolo

There are two kinds of histories of the university as an institution that may help us understand the dilemmas now confronting universities in Latin and Anglo-America. Since the European Renaissance and European colonial expansion in the sixteenth century—that is, the foundational moment of the modern/colonial world—the accumulation of money has gone hand in hand with the accumulation of meaning and of knowledge. Today “historical-structural dependency” still structures the world, both economically and epistemically. If the Latin American university, as an institution, is in crisis (as is the political and economic system, from Argentina to Colombia, from Venezuela to Peru, and from Brazil to Mexico), it is obvious that the accumulation of money cannot be detached from the institutional accumulation of meaning and knowledge at the university. Economists like Joseph Stiglitz and financial giants like George Soros have been denouncing the crisis of capitalism since the early 1990s. Shortly before then, Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos (1987) published a booklet about the crisis of science. Is it a coincidence that capitalism and scientific practices have a parallel biography, and that they both have arrived at a critical stage, together? What are the possible futures that can be imagined from our daily practice at the university? And how can we reimagine the connections between knowledge, the state, civil and political society, and an economy that is coming apart under the guidance of market fundamentalism? In addition to exploring these questions, this essay will detail how one institution, the Universidad Intercultural in Ecuador, has responded to them in a way that demonstrates [End Page 97] that an institution of higher education need not be subservient to the values of the liberal state, the needs of corporations, or hegemonic conceptions of “universal” knowledge.

Since knowing how cannot be identified with knowing what and understanding why, the role of the humanities in the corporate university becomes essential. And I say the “humanities,” and not just “the humanists” (as a species distinct from natural scientists and scholars in the professional schools). Since all knowledge and understanding is human understanding (from genomics to dance, from electric engineering to literature, from mathematical models in economy to political economy), every scholar, academic, and scientist has a responsibility toward the humanities; in other words, he or she has critical, ethical, and political responsibilities in the production, dissemination, transformation, and enactment of knowledge. The humanities can no longer afford to be what they have been for the past sixty years: a “complement” to the “efficiency” of “serious” technological knowledge that guarantees a constant progress of humanity as a whole and a sublime “enrichment” of human beings as Human Being. The repeated errors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)'s economic policies, and the “mistakes” of financial experts at Enron and WorldCom, show, among other things, that efficiency and expertise are simply technological skills, and not a guarantee of ethical conduct and political vision. Frank Capra's superb film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), for example, remains a fundamental allegory of the individual perversions of “knowledge and interests” under capitalism and “liberal” democracy. The university today is not, indeed, cannot be, isolated from the general values by which the defenders of “triumphant” neoliberalism trumpeted it in the United States, Argentina, Europe, and elsewhere.

As I said, the accumulation of money, in the constitution of Europe, the West, or Western civilization, went hand in hand with the accumulation of meaning. Think about “museums of natural history,” for example. They are a clear example of the accumulation of meaning and knowledge; and the “histories” of museums of natural history parallel those of capitalism and European expansion all over the globe. Let this serve as a paradigmatic example in the sketching of two kinds of histories, the proper knowledge of which is beyond my reach at this point. As I said earlier, I am...