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.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The control of university knowledge became a question of who would control the world.

In 1961 Robert Menzies wrote to Max Hartwell:
While not wishing to comment in detail on what you have said, I permit myself two observations: that the extent of government interference in university matters in Australia has been grossly exaggerated … much time is being wasted in defending something which is not in danger in Australia – academic freedom.
Between the end of the Second World War and the 1960s, the structure that produced university knowledge had been transformed. The long debate of the 1940s and 1950s – should universities be ‘service stations’ or ‘ivory towers’? – was largely settled shortly after acceptance and implementation of the Murray review. Remaining questions tended to focus on what type of benefit the universities should provide. The services to the nation that Menzies and Murray hoped from the universities required academic freedom. But democracy required transparency and accountability: Federal funding in exchange for national knowledge. Torn, Murray and Menzies designed a university system that would always be in tension. But while they hoped to protect university autonomy, their responsibility was to government. They structured a system that would enable the nation, gradually, to take control.

However, the shift that occurred was not only about the tightening shackles as universities’ obligation to the Commonwealth government grew. The political consequences of knowledge intensified after the Second World War and this itself contributed to structural change. Politicised knowledge is contestable: and in the mistrustful environment the Cold War promoted it became hotly contested.

In a world where knowledge won wars and controlled economies, ASIO considered university roles to have national security implications. As the potential for university administrators to assist ASIO control of university appointments increased, academics reacted to protect their intellectual and political freedoms. Their defensive measures – in particular the growing unionisation of the community of scholars – contributed to increasingly antagonistic relationships in the universities. Knowledge during the Cold War became, as Nicholas Brown put it, ‘irrevocably politicised’.

The stakes were high. Who would control knowledge? Nuclear research was an obvious site of the scuffle for power, but it permeated all research and teaching. Who would decide what was to be taught and how many would learn it, or the values and benefits imbued in university teaching? On what basis would discoveries be made and to what uses might they be put? What were the soviets doing and would democratic nations know more and know it better? The control of university knowledge became a question of who would control the world.

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.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Does Australia even need universities?


The current role of the university in Australia is barely distinguishable from commercial research and development and its teaching role is also under threat. Open and accessible eLearning combined with workplace-based cognitive apprenticeship could substitute current higher educational functions in ways that would avoid doctrinal knowledge, be more democratic, accessible and individually tailored. With the online portfolio poised to replace the academic transcript, all the tools are now in place to make the university obsolete. If Australia does need universities, it does not need the ones we are getting. Would it make any difference to the nation at all if universities, like medieval monasteries, were mere relics of a past authority?


I wrote this essay this year: Does Australia need universities?

It was shortlisted, but sadly did not win the prize I submitted it to. I hope you enjoy it nonetheless!

Former head of Commonwealth Bank says economic system is misleading

Imagine a world where the former head of the Commonwealth Bank said this:

"We have, I believe, been misled by our experience with the economic system in industrialised countries over the last 150 years. Its success in producing a flood of commodities and possessions, in which even the poorest seem to have shared, has been due largely to circumstances clearly temporary: to the running down of our capital in exhaustible resources; to the fact that we ignore the accumulating costs of pollution and other environmental damage; to our exploitation of the populations of non-industrialised societies; and to the continued existence within our own communities of women and other minorities whose unpaid work has made the division of labour in market-oriented exterprises possible."
HC (Nugget) Coombs, Science and Technology - for what purpose?, 1979