Tuesday 20 May 2003

What is knowledge?

Universities, the 'knowledge economy', and the real thing

UK education secretary Charles Clarke declared recently that the state has no interest in supporting ‘the medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth’ (1). Such backwardness from a politician would be unremarkable, except that in the traditionally philistine worlds of government and business, ‘knowledge’ is all the rage. The British government has put libraries and educational institutions at the centre of its social inclusion strategy. And even after the collapse of the dotcom bubble in the 1990s, a consensus prevails that the future of business lies in the ‘knowledge economy’.

It is an unlikely victory for the Enlightenment ideal, following decades of both rampant and more insipid relativism in academia - which cast doubt on the very possibility of knowledge - and at a time when, far from valuing knowledge, it often seems that cultural institutions are ‘dumbing down’. The irony is that just as society seems to be embracing the notion that knowledge is all-important, the institutions that have traditionally fostered it - universities - have lost their sense of mission.

This uncertainty is expressed in the attempt to justify universities in terms that have little or nothing to do with knowledge, sometimes discussed as a ‘Third Mission’ (on top of teaching and research). This soul-searching is heartily encouraged by Charles Clarke and his political ilk. Sometimes it is argued that universities should make a direct contribution to the economy - for example, by turning scientific innovations to commercial ends. More generally it is suggested that universities ought to be of some use to society, whether by forging links with local businesses or by reaching out to excluded minorities and fostering social inclusion.

However the Third Mission is defined, what is striking is the idea that the first two ‘missions’ are not enough. In fact teaching and research really constitute a single mission, the pursuit of knowledge. This ideal of the university as an institution in which academics and students dedicate themselves to their disciplines was codified by the German academic and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Humboltian ideal rests on the premise that knowledge is valuable in its own terms.

The ideal has not always been honoured in reality, but the stunning revelation that there was never a ‘Golden Age’ of the university is typically used to justify attacks on the very aspiration. It is the collapse of this aspiration that has led to the search for extraneous justifications for the university’s existence.

Worse still, perhaps, is the transformation of knowledge itself into something much more mundane. In this context, even teaching and research themselves are divorced from knowledge in the more profound sense. Along with such worthy-sounding goals as ‘quality’ and ‘inclusivity’, ‘teaching’ and ‘research’ can be justified externally, with reference to social function. The very idea that knowledge justifies itself, with reference only to the reality from which it derives, has all but disappeared.

Tellingly, this instrumental approach to knowledge casts teaching and research as conflicting claims on academics’ time. The idea that teaching and research are in conflict corresponds with a particularly impoverished model of knowledge, which is revealed in the phrase ‘knowledge creation’. This presents universities as factories of knowledge competing with think-tanks and other private institutions.

But knowledge cannot be understood as a commodity, as if it could be manufactured, bought and sold. Knowledge is a synthesis of particular insights and understandings achieved in particular disciplines, and developed and refined over time.

In everyday usage, ‘research’ means the gathering of information. But this is only part of what happens in universities. Indeed, some disciplines involve little or no information-gathering. But ‘research’ has the benefit of sounding like real work, a quality with strong appeal for institutions that are defensive about their claims on public money and their prestige.

This research-heavy, ‘knowledge creation’ model privileges innovation and utility over depth and subtlety. If the academic’s role is constantly to create new knowledge, then teaching will certainly seem like a burden. ‘Run along, pesky students, the professor has to make some new knowledge.’ But this is not a very good model of knowledge. Universities are not like widget factories, or even market research firms. Universities are places where people are paid to think, and it is in this context that the role of teaching should be understood.

The American academic John Agresto asks himself, ‘Why do I never feel I really know something until I’ve taught it?’ (2). This is not to endorse the hippiesque notion that teachers learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. The important point is that teaching means thinking about something in a qualitatively different way. Teachers have to help their students to understand, rather than simply dazzling them with innovative ideas. Teachers themselves have to understand their subjects in a way that pure researchers don’t.

Ironically, universities’ preoccupation with research as a source of authority and funding tends to diminish research itself as well as undervaluing teaching. Apart from the obsession with novelty and the insistence on measurability (judging academics on the numbers of journal articles they have published rather than their actual intellectual achievements), there is a tendency to bring in star academics who will bolster the university’s reputation, leaving their less glamorous colleagues to do the teaching.

Of course, those who only teach will have less to offer their students than those who are immersed in their disciplines. Access to the best minds is what makes a university education special. Academics doubtless get frustrated by demands on their time, but if dealing with students seems a drag, perhaps that in turn has to do with the increasingly rote and uninspiring nature of university teaching that goes along with the instrumentally driven expansion of higher education. If students are bored by pre-prepared handouts and banal study tips, it is not surprising that their teachers feel the same way.

In principle, however, both teaching and research are valuable components of the pursuit of knowledge in its proper sense, and as such they are entirely compatible. Of course, teaching is not the only way to deepen one’s understanding of a subject, and indeed universities are not the only places this can be done. The pursuit of knowledge is not necessarily incompatible with politics. Far from it.

The current one-sided and instrumental relationship between universities and government impoverishes both, but there have been times when political controversies have had philosophical weight, and philosophical and scientific disputes have had a political character. And the potential for such serious thought is always there.

What is at issue is not so much conflicting definitions of knowledge, as intellectual ambition itself. Before you can really value knowledge, you have to be able to imagine a world beyond the everyday, beyond degree courses, career structures, beyond political expediency and the economic bottom line. It is the aspiration to grasp this world, to understand and even to change it, that distinguishes genuine intellectual endeavour from the ephemeral bit-processing of the ‘knowledge economy’.


1) Clarke questions study as ‘adornment’, BBCi, 9 May
2) What is Classical Education and How is it Unique?, by John Agresto

This essay was originally published on spiked.


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Resources

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Marxists Online
Marx, Engels, Lenin and beyond

New Left Review, international Leftist journal

Mute Magazine, culture and politics after the net

Red Pepper, influenced by socialism, feminisim and environmental politics

Dissent Magazine, US Leftist journal for the clashing of strong opinions

And its counterpart, Commentary, general, yet Jewish

Granta, magazine for new writing

Wikipedia, ze internet encyclopedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical