Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Knowledge, power, money and ownership: conclusions from the 1940s and 1950s

Here is the conclusion from my first draft of the 1950s chapter.

Full text is available. Part 1 Part 2 Bibliography

I would definitely welcome any comments and criticisms anyone has. If you're more comfortable emailing me, please do.

Knowledge, power, money and ownership: conclusions from the 1940s and 1950s

This chapter has come to the same conclusions from two directions. Part one considered, largely, the perspective of academics within Australian universities as higher education gained a high profile as a result of the Second World War. Part two broadly (though not exclusively) considered the government side of the events of these two decades, highlighting the difficulty in a democratic system of maintaining both academic freedom and accountability for public funding. What emerged was a new kind of university that had a responsibility to be responsive to the public in its production of knowledge – and where the ownership of (new kinds of) knowledge was slipping through the fingers of the academics that produced it.

The massive changes to higher education that occurred throughout the 1940s and 1950s were felt, by the academics who engaged with these issues, as potential challenges to academic ownership of knowledge – understood in the tradition of academic freedom. The potential for interference by government increased with every funding allocation. Changes to the demographic of enrolling students, as well as an increasing public expectation, functioned to add a new instrumentalism to university knowledge, embodied in the name of the NSW University of Technology. The construction of the ideal academic in heroic terms, emphasising that you can’t buy academics that do not care about money, operates as an attempt to assure the ownership of knowledge stays with the academic. However, this character did not possess the resilience that academics like Eric Ashby would have hoped.

In the Murray committee’s report to government, this same academic hero was present – but so was the requirement that universities efficiently fulfil (public) needs in exchange for (public) funding – a requirement that required some central (government) control and coordination. The structural consequence was, as Patrridge demonstrated, the positioning of universities as “public instrumentalities…[with] public functions”, which also contributed to a tendency to increased instrumentalism of the knowledge produced. At the same time, the Commonwealth established its own “pet university” in Canberra, with a mandate to expand the boundaries of knowledge with a focus on research – or knowledge production.
Knowledge production (in research) is the predominant perception of knowledge by the end of the 1950s, which is a change from the previous period that saw knowledge transmission (in teaching) as the principle role for universities. This is a symptom of the process Lyotard defines as delegitimation, in which knowledge as absolute and encyclopaedic is delegitimised, replaced by contingent and ever-expanding knowledge. It is clear that this shift in the perceived character of knowledge also commences the displacement of the heroic academic as autonomous expert, repositioning them as dutiful employee – starting to remove from them the control, validation and ownership of knowledge.

It might seem ironic that in this period of knowledge delegitimation, knowledge was also gaining greater value. But delegitimation is a process internal to universities – a process that questions the academic monopoly over university-based knowledge – and it disperses the possession and control of knowledge more widely. With the increased economic and moral value of knowledge came a widening desire to possess it. The democratisation of higher education in this period is one sign of this, as a widening group of students – including more women – seek to possess it. However, while the education explosion of the 1950s identified the agency of academics, universities and government, it assumed passivity in its students, possessing a right to access, but not control knowledge – despite increasingly identifying student individuality, as Brown showed. But the control of knowledge is power – and students, as we will see, were soon to want it too.

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