Friday, 22 August 2008

Knowledge in the sixties

The pre-1960s model of knowledge was hierarchical. And therefore so was the university. In this schema, it is universal truth that knowledge has a foundation, a core on which other knowledge is built. A novice must start with the core.

Knowledge, according to this system, builds from there to increase in complexity, is applied across other areas and also becomes increasingly specialised. The university structure, according to the 1960s and 70s generation, makes this the case – it does not reflect reality, it forms it.

For some, this makes the act of knowing an act of violence. For others, it makes it complicit in imperialism, capitalism and even war. For most, the act of knowing is a part of a regime of power: this is the point at which Foucault says the power apparatuses he had been exploring finally had a political phenomenon to give it substance and purpose.

In the old schema, knowledge underpins things in a hierarchical world. It underpins really important things, like a civilised society, a humane system of beliefs, a strong economy and an ethical world. After the Second World War, academics in all Australian institutions (except for one) were concerned about the increase in the percentage of intellectuals who would, in the future (as was then already increasingly the case) be devoted to science and technology. This was not (just – for there was some of this in there) because science and technology were grubby, applied, commercial disciplines that did not conform to aristocratic ideals of academia. The fact that Ian Clunies Ross was worried about this tells us that. The genuine concern was for the loss of humanity (due to a lower proportion of intellectuals in the humanities) in a world underpinned by knowledge.

It is no wonder that they (see my earlier Ashby quotes as an example) could not understand why students and junior staff were concerned about this. Yes, knowledge underpinned society, that is why universities sought to protect it. But the next generation were to see this as the problem with knowledge, not its justification. The next generation saw knowledge as justifying an inhumane society, as a falsely underpinning oppressive structures, as a tool for authoritarian power.

The structure of the university, curricula, and assessment schemes confirmed it. All power lay with the professor who was responsible for the protection and transfer of knowledge and who could (and sometimes would) veto any “unauthorised” knowledge going on. Curricula consisted of a core, protecting a canon that served to prevent social change.

The student and junior staff (often one would become the other, of course) movements served, as I’ve said before, to revolutionise university pedagogy and to shift universities from examining bodies to training ones. They did more than this – more, I suspect than they intended – which I’ll discuss later. The fact that a revolution in the purpose and character of university education could be effected in what realy was a remarkably short time was not due to the effectiveness of protest or “something about the period”, however. It was just because there was a generation gap: few new academics had been employed for some time and then quite a lot were, after the Murray review at the end of the 1950s. This meant that the generation against whom protest was directed were on the way out anyway and a very large number of new generation academics were on the way in. The probability of repeating a similar change in higher education to that of the 60s and 70s is very low, for we normally have a relatively steady flow of new academics entering the system.

All this is just the backdrop for new – and largely unplanned, I believe – consequences for the ownership of knowledge.

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