MODERNITY’S UNIVERSITY, SOCIAL JUSTICE, AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: A Cosmo-uBuntu Critique

Centered on the experience of Eduardo Mondlane in three universities in the United States, this article highlights the importance of universities to assume a social responsibility stance that is critical of its philosophical foundation and roots itself on perceptions of human beyond the current cartesian ethos. Conceptually, the article centers its discourse on the divergent conceptualizations of human drawn from humanism and uBuntu, as foundational differentiators of perceptions and practices of justice and social responsibility. Theoretically, it leans on a critique of modernity and humanism by presenting uBuntu and Cosmo-uBuntu as alternative philosophical and theoretical lenses for problematizing and explaining justice and social responsibility. Methodologically, it draws from reflexivity, hermeneutics (especially, textual criticism), and archival documentary research. Its purpose is to inspire universities to engage in reflexivity about their social responsibility claims and to encourage an intentional commitment to social responsibility that is informed by exterior to modernity theorizing.

Modernity’s university, social justice, and social responsibility: a Cosmo-uBuntu critique

A university can serve as a birthplace of ideas that feed its surrounding community by nurturing the flames of activism, conscientize it about issues of justice, or by transferring knowledge that breeds apathy towards the status quo. The last decades have witnessed a pervasive tendency for universities to align their mission and teaching (at least at the level of integrating in the syllabi) to social justice and for universities and their respective faculty to claim militancy for social justice with some engaging in actual militancy through protests, lobbying, building, and participating in social movements, writing, etc. (Lynch et al. 2010; Patton et al. 2010). More recently, universities, academic societies1, and academics in general are taking on social responsibility as another dimension of their service to communities and the world at large. The former was inspired by liberation theology and, as an academic movement, by Paulo Freire (1968/1972). The latter is likely inspired by corporate uses and misuses of the term and the fact that universities are modernist functionalist institutions operating under the same principles as corporations, thus might feel the obligation to explain their different approach to social responsibility, especially amidst the conundrum of claiming to fight injustice while operating as for-profit capitalist entities. Juan Luis Segundo argues that, “to be relevant, theology simply must respond to the questions that the poor are asking” (Dempster et al., 1991, p. 47). This is not, by any means, to reduce the mission of the church to social action but to help the church understand that evangelism is not a matter of oratory but of praxis and proxy. In the same vein, I argue that to be relevant and socially responsible, universities must respond to questions that the impoverished and disadvantaged are asking. This is not to reduce the mission of the university (and education) to social responsibility but to help universities to understand that education is not a matter of oratory but of praxis and proxy.

Admittedly, this is not an easy responsibility for the university, as an institution. Part of the struggle is incited and nurtured by the university’s embracing of a humanist perception of human and a commitment to functionalism, given the fact that the hegemonic model of university (i.e., Western) is a modernist enterprise. Therefore, since social presupposes the human, it is imperative to highlight the distinction in perceptions of the human springing from humanism and uBuntu as follows:

Descartian logic, which constitutes the heart of Humanism (especially, as manifested in Cartesianism), attests to the decision-making process in conceptualizing and understanding the essence of being human. In Cartesian terms, the mind discovered itself, defined itself, and made sense of itself and the life it leads. This, in contrast to the body, which is rendered (almost) meaningless in regard to understanding existence. (Cossa, in press-a)

On the other hand,

In uBuntu world, as opposed to humanist world, existence is not reduced to thought but to the perception of being that is contingent on, and inseparable from, fellow humans. Moreover, uBuntu focuses on the whole being and manifests in the communal, known in Swahili as ujamaa (Nyerere 1966); whereas Humanism focuses on the creative power of the human brain and manifests in the individual. I argue for the absence of ‘individual’ in uBuntu, using as a premise the motto itself and African spiritual cosmologies (Mbiti 1995). When translated literally, the motto means ‘a person is a person unto persons’ (not others), thus rendering both the singular and the ‘othering’ obsolete by not allowing the definition of personhood through self/individuality. (Cossa, in press-a)

Moreover, I (Cossa, 2020, pp. 34-35) have argued that,
The concept of the other is a result of Modernity’s exclusivist perception of itself. No matter how humane the project of Modernity portrayed itself, its foundation in a Cartesian perception of the human, the Kantian hierarchy of race (Eze, 1997), the de Vitorian Christianizing of the other (Vitoria, 1962 [1539]), and the tenets of structural differentiation and cultural rationalization on which they are all anchored (Schmidt, 2010), prohibited it from reaching any sense of global justice and participating in a global education project that was based on equitable participation of all humans.

As a modernist and functionalist entity, the university has found it very difficult, and I venture to say, impossible, to execute justice in its truest sense. How can the university execute justice in its truest sense if it embraces and perpetuates a humanist understanding of human and its accommodation of hierarchies of humanness based on intellect, gender, race, national origin, etc.; holds on to requirements such as standardized tests; colonial languages (e.g., English, French, Portuguese, and German) as languages of instruction; continues to be Western in all its orientation with a predominantly white and/or male population of students, faculty, and administration; promotes Western cognition, ontology, axiology, and epistemology over those of fellow humans and, holds on to rankings and hierarchies based on Western standards of what it means to be a world class university (Salmi, 2010), scholar, student, and administration.

In essence, universities seem to miss the fact that claiming social justice and social responsibility does not imply living a social justice lifestyle or carrying out social responsibility and, consequently, impacting our community with such. Universities are comfortable talking about social justice and social responsibility, to some extent and within comfortable philosophical settings, yet they are not bold enough to confront themselves about how our humane core has been tempered with by misconceptions of the essence of justice and, therefore, of liberation. In a time when social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall, landless workers movements, immigrant rights movements, etc. are comprised of community members, students, faculty, and university administrators, it is imperative for universities to play a much more proactive and intentional role in realizing their social responsibility toward fostering justice. However, to take that bold step, universities must question their own philosophical and theoretical foundation – modernity, humanism, and functionalism – yet doing so threatens their relevance and perpetuity. This allegiance to the overarching philosophical and theoretical systems at the expense of justice is the conundrum that universities have faced since their inception into the times of colonialism, slavery, and present-day coloniality.

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José Cossa Ph.D., a Member of the HiA Network, is a Mozambican scholar, writer/author, researcher, poet, blogger, “twitterer”, podcaster, entrepreneur, and an Associate Professor in the College of Education at Pennsylvania State University.

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