Tuesday, 30 November 2010

It was impossible to think about knowledge in the same way again


Prior to the student revolutionary period, knowledge was linear (but not uniform). Universities’ stance towards the nation and society was an almost contractual servitude: a column of obligation that directed knowledge from government to university. Knowledge supported the nation and its goals. Even when it was not explicitly deployed to support the establishment, knowledge was perceived in linear ways. The process of development from novice to professor; the singularity of the knowledge that research and discovery enriched; the certainty of the division between known and unknown – university knowledge was a straight line. After the revolution, knowledge was multiple, fragmented in a different way to what Clunies Ross described – or would have even been able to imagine. It was impossible to think about knowledge in the same way again.

While knowledge had been linear, it had also been hierarchical: complex knowledge was built on fundamental, on a foundation of truths and of ideas expounded by canonical authors. The structure of the university had reflected this hierarchical epistemology: experts ruled, novices were ruled. Students and sub-professorial radicals collapsed this structure. Towering truth was toppled and knowledge was rebuilt in a thousand smaller, contested structures.
Knowledge had also been external: it was something to aspire to, a substance to acquire and gain mastery over. Those masters, the professoriate, were then required to protect it from decay and defend it from pollution. Students changed knowledge to become internal, specific to the individual. Knowledge would now be individually constructed and articulated, its uniqueness its value. This transformed the structure of university authority. When each individual constructed different knowledge, its measurability was undermined. It destabilized legitimacy. The university’s power over knowledge had rested in its arbitration, expressed through examinations. Examination declared what university knowledge was, who had acquired it and (very importantly) who had not. But in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, new types of knowledge emerged from among those deemed to be novices, weakening the hierarchical structure on which professorial power had rested. Students went further, exposing the system’s weakness: that professorial rule was based on an authority they had granted themselves.

However, the constructed character of knowledge also encouraged collaboration: it is ironic, but no coincidence, that in the moment knowledge was individualised, the idea of the community of scholars was also strengthened. And yet, student calls for an egalitarian structure to scholarly society did not result in them adding themselves to the professoriate, bolstering the authority of the university: rather, that authority was delegitimised. The academic would become a facilitator, rather than a master, of knowledge. The value of knowledge itself (not its truth, but the substance for which it was appreciated) was individualised, measured now by its subjective relevance. This separated knowledge from the quality of the university’s resources and teaching. That is, expensive libraries, sophisticated equipment and high qualifications could not as easily be correlated to better knowledge: particularly since those who had always declared which knowledge was better were now themselves discredited, exposed as self-interested.  Stressing constructed knowledge was not in itself incorrect, but it propagated a terrible lie: that there was no relationship between financial input and academic quality.

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