Radical Epis­temic Reset: Ed­ucating for Just Communities Worldwide

Radical Epis­temic Reset: Ed­ucating for Just Communities Worldwide

If the prescient American philos­opher Richard Rorty is correct, we have entered into “the breakdown of democratic institutions during the Dark Years (2014-2044)1,” a period marked by unmitigated greed and protectionist policies, especially evident in those at the upper end of the wage spectrum, accompanied by a break in “our sense of the relation between the moral order and the economic order.”2 Rorty writes,

Just as twentieth-century Americans had trouble imag­ining how their pre-Civil War ancestors could have stom­ached slavery, so we at the end of the twenty-first cen­tury have trouble imagining how our great grandparents could have legally permitted a CEO to get 20 times more than her lowest paid employ­ees. We cannot understand how Americans a hundred years ago could have toler­ated the horrific contrast be­tween a childhood spent in the suburbs and one spent in the ghettos. Such inequali­ties seem to us evident moral abominations, but the vast majority of our ancestors took them to be regrettable neces­sities.3

From this view of “looking back” over the 21st centu­ry, higher education insti­tutions (HEIs) have choices to make along a contin­uum. They may elect to reproduce themselves— thereby passively perpet­uating “regrettable ne­cessities” — or transform themselves, by de-cen­tering knowledge produc­tion, and therefore power, away from the Academy and into communities.

Here is a recent example of the latter from my own university:

It was a grey Saturday in Feb­ruary. About 35 people gath­ered at a non-descript street corner in Portland, Oregon. Most were undergraduate stu­dents. Neighbors, the instruc­tor and nonprofit staff joined in. It was drizzling. People shuffled around; they were cold and nervous. Students’ objective was to assist a local nonprofit organization to conduct door-to-door surveys. The point was to test neighbors’ interest in converting a nearby lot filled with garbage and blackberry brambles into a community or­chard. Pairs received instruc­tions and maps and headed out on foot. One student, Martina (pseudonym), arrived  late and was paired with the instructor. Martina told the in­structor she was a police cadet in training. Eventually, she told the instructor that this course, and especially this communi­ty-based learning (CBL) can­vassing activity, really “opened her eyes about learning and leadership.” Much of her police cadet training puts officers in a defensive posture, she said. Martina noted that the pub­lic tended to react to police officers in very formal ways, often with fear. However, she noticed that the inviting tone of the CBL interactions while can­vassing seemed to elicit a dif­ferent, more open and casual response. She shared that walking the streets and actively listening to neighbors as part of the class opened her to new ways of learning and generat­ed insights she hoped to bring to fellow cadets.4

Students in this class were introduced to the idea that valid knowledge and wisdom exists in many locales, not solely in univer­sity classrooms. Sadly, in 2018, this kind of community-connect­ed, real-life pedagogical approach is still novel in HEIs. In order to effectively fulfill their role as de­velopers of the next generation of global citizens, HEIs must radically change their definition of epistemology – what counts for knowledge. Vanguard uni­versities in 2040 will co-produce applied knowledge that empow­ers communities globally to define their world as they experience it. Communities, supported by HEIs, will address challenges to grow the public good in their world, as defined by them.

Only by embracing new commu­nity-connected pedagogies like the one above may we hope to circumvent most of Rorty’s “Dark Years.” Indeed, as the educa­tional historian John Saltmarsh has suggested, by focusing on a transformational view of the “pub­lic good”5 higher education has the potential to deliver now on this 2040 promise of a more socially just global society. The table on the right outlines the distinctions in terms of community, research, teaching and culture.

In sum, Martina was placed in an unfamiliar setting, invited to learn while engaging, and quick­ly gained insights about herself and others. Her view of fellow citizens was changed; her no­tion of epistemology (recognizing community-based sources of knowledge and relevance) was modified; she listened. In 2040, HEIs intent on building an equi­table and thriving global society will have courage to undergo an epistemic revolution. Teaching and research will be transdisciplinary, valuing and building on knowledge and wisdom in and outside of the Academy.

Public Good Framework6 and Emerging Skill Set7


1 Rorty, R. (1999). “Looking back from the year 2096” in Philosophy and social hope. Penguin Publishing, UK, p. 243.

2 Ibid., 243.

3 Ibid., 243.

4 Kecskes, K., Sumner, R., Elliott, E. & Ackerman, A. (2016). A year-long journey in the orchard: Growing community amid the brambles, in Wortham-Gavin; B. D., Allen, J., and Sherman, J., (Eds.) Sustainable solutions: Let knowledge serve the city, Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield, UK, pp. 11-34.

5 Saltmarsh, J., (2016). Higher education’s ac­countability for the public good. Keynote address delivered to the Academic Resource Conference, Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

6 Saltmarsh, J., (2016). Adapted from “Higher education’s accountability for the public good.” Keynote address delivered to the Academic Resource Conference, Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

7 Institute for the future. (2011). Adapted from “Future work skills 2020”. Retrieved November 3, 2017 http://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ images/whatwedo/IFTF_FutureWorkSkillsSum­mary.gif


Kevin Kecskes, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Public Administration at Portland State University where he teaches graduate students on global leadership and management and is the faculty advisor for PSU’s undergraduate program in civic leadership. For over a decade, Dr. Kecskes provided university-wide leadership at PSU as Associate Vice Provost for Engagement and Director for Community-University Partnerships. From 1997-2002, he was Regional Program Director for the Western Region Campus Compact Consortium. Over more than two decades, Kecskes has consulted with universities in the U.S. and internationally and published multiple journal articles and book chapters along with Engaging Departments: Moving Faculty Culture from Private to Public, Individual to Collective Focus for the Common Good (2006). Dr. Kecskes annually takes students to Cuba for immersive study tours and he has an active research agenda with young leaders and their universities in the Middle East/North African region. He lives in Portland, OR, USA.

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