Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Knowledge beyond the cloister: universities after WWII

When the war started, universities were small, elite and introspective. After it, they became large, meritocratic and more focused on their obligations to society. As the university’s gaze diverted outwards however, so did knowledge. It escaped the cloister, becoming variable, unpredictable. It also became owned.

The war had changed the possible frames in which university knowledge could be imagined. Cloistered knowledge, unified knowledge had been encapsulated in the idea of the universityeven its name bespoke its unityWhen the war presented new moral challenges, the university’s role in promoting civility took new form. Trust in universal, unified knowledge could no longer be sustained. Which knowledge would support society? Ian Clunies Ross and Kim Edward Beazley both believed pure, rather than applied knowledge, would perform that task, Clunies Ross especially considering the humanities foundational to humane thinking. But while they could hope, plead and embarrass universities and governments to try to persuade them of the importance of pure and cloistered knowledge, the movement towards applied, industrial and technological knowledge in the universities could not be stopped.

Knowledge had benefited from its expedition beyond the university walls. Real-world applications highlighted new scientific problems, which in turn revealed possibilities for new discoveries and new technologies. The war had been fought and won on the basis of scientific and technological development. A new economy was built, industries grew and new levels of education were needed on the basis of the knowledge that thrived under extra-cloister conditions. But this also fragmented knowledge. Ever-increasing specialisation supported expanding innovation and a growing complexity of university purpose. Universities supported civil democracy, industrial and agricultural economic development, human health and welfare, shadowing the singularity of purpose encapsulated in the nation’s “intellectual health” as Ashby had perceived it. Moreover, fragmented knowledge could be owned: each fragment collected for personal or commercial use.

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