Thursday, 25 August 2011

Contesting knowledge

What the banks are to money, the universities have become to knowledge. Over around eight centuries, the power of the university has increased so that – perhaps with some parallels to the medieval church – its authority over knowledge is very nearly absolute. The university built an economy based on knowledge: as it was produced, knowledge was reinvested into the community of scholars, prompting further growth, ever-enhancing the university’s growing monopoly over knowledge. As centuries passed, other communities and institutions lost their purchase on knowledge as the university’s control of it grew. The church, the state, trade guilds, patenting offices, commercial laboratories even academies of science all lack the legitimacy possessed by the university. The university decides what knowledge is, and who may have it and benefit from its fruits. Modern nation states have been built on the power university knowledge has provided. Democracy itself depends on flourishing and widespread knowledge. But the university’s supremacy did not go uncontested. In the second half of the twentieth century, knowledge was the object of great bloodless battles as the state, industry and commerce tussled for its control. That contest is the subject of this thesis.

In Australia, the growth of higher education is associated with nation building. Like its economic structures, health systems, schooling and national infrastructure, then, university history is normally viewed through an institutional lens. In the period from the 1940s to the 1990s, the significant transformations are therefore considered to be the growth in student numbers, changes in government policy and the number and form of institutions. What the institutional perspective does not do, however, is consider the changing nature of the substance at stake as the university’s role changed. By approaching the history of universities from the perspective of knowledge, new anxieties become evident. The moral role of knowledge and the struggle to maintain the university’s civilising ideals; the tensions between university autonomy and national strategy; the relative value of collective and individual academic knowledge; and the search to quantify the value of knowledge, to find a money-equivalent – all issues that transformed academic priorities and institutional relationships.

The changes this thesis considers emerge in the Second World War. Universities and their members, during the war, were no less bound to its duties than their fellow citizens. Having learned, since the Great War, that battles might be better won with science, research infrastructure was this time better prepared, resulting in spectacular advances in knowledge. This demonstration of the value of university research and education to the nation was, for the universities, a mixed blessing. The new investment in Australian universities that resulted from their growing usefulness also brought greater scrutiny. Governments increasingly sought to interfere in university business. As the decades passed, university autonomy seemed less and less plausible. And yet, the university’s responsibility for the health, safety, civility and prosperity of the nation continued to grow. In the decades that followed the war, investment kept increasing. The alliance of university knowledge to the state was strengthened.

It was an imperfect, uneasy alliance, however, for academics were not all readily tamed. Further disrupted by student revolutionary movements in the 1960s and 1970s and then by the economic reforms of the 1980s, towards the end of the century the universities’ relationship to government tended to be far less convivial. Scholars struggled to retain their authority over knowledge as society’s stake in it grew. The complex diplomatic, political, economic and cultural transformations of the second half of the twentieth century required significant quantities of research in every field. And yet, despite that increased reliance on universities for the national good, by the 1990s, government looked upon higher education in a different way. Instead of national institutions requiring public investment, university research seemed an industry, competing with others for government support and commercial income.

Science and technology dominated this transformation, but this is not just a history of science. Focusing on knowledge more broadly allows consideration of a wider set of issues. The ways that universities characterised and negotiated their mission were associated with changes in the ways they thought about knowledge. New disciplines and ideas were included – or rejected – on the basis of an authority that the university gave itself. But Australia’s public university tradition implied that government ought to have a say in research decisions and educational priorities. Transactional authority, the claims of the purchaser over the substance they paid for, was the cause of significant tension as the stakes in higher education escalated.
The most observable change in Australian higher education between 1939 and 1996 is its size. Prior to the Second World War, the nation’s six universities were small and elite. By 1996 a truly mass system of tertiary education had emerged, where 36 universities educated 634,094 students, around sixty times the number enrolled when the war began. With every expansion, new types of students were included. Women, excluded at the start, outnumbered men by the end of the century – though still not in senior academic positions. Indigenous students began to participate from the 1960s. In all cases, widening participation not only resulted in new members of society gaining access to university knowledge, it also brought new knowledge to the university. The inclusion of feminist and indigenous knowledges, just two of many, added new fields and challenged old truths.

That led to struggles to transform curricula and battles over assessment, each reflecting a wider epistemological transformation. Observation of truths, protection of culture and mastery of discrete fields gave way to discovery, collaboration, innovation and uncertainty as scholars recognised the contingent and sometimes fleeting nature of fact. As the twentieth century progressed, the university’s guardianship of truth declined in importance. Research, the great strength of the sciences, became the coup of the university, as government, industry and the economy sought the growth that was made possible by new knowledge. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The PhD

This is the script from a recent presentation I gave at St Paul's College, University of Sydney.

The university attracts tradition. The values of scholarship, even those invented recently, seem eternal and universal. Like religious ritual and trainspotting, university traditions give a sense of order in a fundamentally disordered process: the unknowable journey that is the discovery and production of new knowledge.

Education scholars Angela Brew and Tai Peseta found in their research that academics tend to be irrationally attached to the PhD process as they experienced it, even aspects that were plainly cruel. In her contemporary study of the PhD at this university, Mary Helen Ward has found that this kind of reproduction of educational experiences seems to succeed in enculturating individuals into disciplinary norms but as pedagogy is anarchic: Ward calls it ‘accidental’.

It is this chaotic and yet highly ritualised phenomenon that is our subject today.

In the medieval university, the journey from inception as a scholar to master took around 16 years, the doctorate up to around 20. The doctorate indicated attainment of substantial professional stature in law, medicine or theology.

It was from the German enlightenment that our contemporary PhD emerged, based not on scholarship, which had dominated the humanities tradition, but on a dissertation of original research. Spreading to America in the 19th century and then to England in the early 20th, the PhD was the trademark of the wave that made universities rulers of knowledge.

By the mid-twentieth century, national and international wealth sat firmly on the research that universities provided – not normally humanities research, it must be said, but that did not really result in the decline in the Arts that we would expect, despite our frustrations with being what Stuart Macintyre calls the “poor relation”. That, I would argue is because of the reliance of democracy on knowledge to legitimise its decisions. Democratic nations had for some time realised their dependence on universal education and literacy: knowledge that would enable people to rule themselves. But after the second world war, I suspect that a new reliance on knowledge was developing. Experts – ideally, impartial academic expertise – was becoming a new source of legitimacy for parliamentary rule. Somewhat analogous to Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’, Menzies’ 1957 reform of the university system was in part based on the need for universities that would provide the public and the politicians that represented them with expert advice on the very complex diplomatic, political, economic and cultural transformations that the second half of the twentieth century would require.

By 1947, when the PhD was proposed at Sydney University, universities worldwide had taken control of knowledge. As knowledge was produced, it was reinvested into the community of scholars so that over the centuries their authority had become substantial. Other institutions gradually lost their purchase on knowledge: the church, the state, trade guilds, patenting offices, commercial laboratories even academies of science by the mid-20th century all lacked the authority possessed by the university - an authority that was no longer based on its tradition of protecting old knowledge but rather on its ability to produce new research.

To read the rest of this presentation, see The Humanities PhD

Knowledge and technology

The Second World War called for a level of technological innovation and economic efficiency unknown in prior conflicts. Robert Menzies, Prime Minister throughout many of the changes that followed the war, later reflected:
The Second World War brought about great social changes. In the eye of the future observer, the greatest may well prove to be in the field of higher education.
Universities were indeed required to change substantially. They needed to agree on the proper place of research, innovation and new disciplines; they had to consider the university’s role in education and training for new segments of Australia’s workforce; and they were compelled to negotiate new relationships with government and industry.

To keep reading, see: Chapter One: Knowledge and Technology, 1939-1957

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Knowledge and the twentieth century

The twentieth century, so often seen as a period of decline and loss for the idea of the university, was also a time of triumph. The university’s importance to society in the twentieth century grew with every change. Technological development, growth of the numbers studying at tertiary level, a realisation that knowledge fuelled economies and democracies: since the Second World War, universities became central to the public sphere. Change was often experienced by academics as a kind of bereavement, each challenge a ‘crisis’. Even in very new universities, the idea of ‘the university’ seemed old. It not only drew on centuries of history, it attracted ritual, tradition and myth. The values of the university – even those values that were relatively new – often seemed like they carried long tradition, and that they should be eternal and universal.

Change happened nevertheless. The ‘technological society’ that grew in Australia, as it did internationally, relied on a fundamental shift in the universities. In pre-war Australia, few professions required a degree. Even the most gifted of school students would only look to university if they were especially ‘bookish’. A limited number of their parents perceived the value of what, for many in Australia, seemed an incomprehensible desire for yet more study. After the Second World War, attendance at university grew until, by the 1990s, it was a truly mass system of education, theoretically accessible to any able citizen. This suggested that university knowledge, if it belonged to anyone, belonged to the public.

This certainly appears to be the way government thought about it. The wartime connection between university research and the national good facilitated a formal relationship between universities and the Commonwealth government. Impoverished universities looked eagerly to Federal politicians as Canberra began to invest in research to support the nation. As the decades passed, the investment expanded: new research bred yet more new ideas. Hopes for the nation were carried fervently by senior public servants, scientists, politicians and scholars. Australia would act as an exemplar to the world, they hoped, as knowledge supported its stable democracy, its connections with other nations, the health and lifestyles of its population and the strength of its economy.

Universities noticed that they were losing their grip on the direction of research. The early diversion of university resources to support the emergency of war set a precedent: the government would step in to ask the universities, at times of need, to support the nation that now supported them. Government would also increasingly seek to protect or to limit its investment. From the Murray report onwards, the questions were repeated: what priorities might be set, what savings might be made? Reasonableness was not lost on the universities, despite fears of increasing economic instrumentalism. For seven centuries, as Eric Ashby pointed out, universities “have learnt how to dissuade their patrons - princes, bishops, tycoons, alumni - from meddling in their affairs”.  And so they continued to negotiate, cajole, irritate and plead for university autonomy and academic freedom – for only under those conditions, they argued, could the nation be reassured that it ruled itself on the basis of the best possible knowledge, without self-deceit.

The university’s legitimation crisis was embedded within this sacred duty. If political stability was dependent on academics who would “seek the truth and make it known”, what would happen if despite (or, in the Cold War context, perhaps because of) all their independence, they sought the ‘wrong’ truths?  The  politicisation of knowledge during the Cold War slowly hinted at what student radicals would finally expose: university knowledge was ideologically determined, perpetuating social hierachy and intellectual conformity. Despite fierce battles with professorial masters, the university’s relatively rapid acquiescence to radical student demands perhaps reveals some discomfort with the university’s responsibility for truth and certainty.

Certainly the guardianship of civilisation was a challenging calling in the twentieth century. After the Second World War, in the very moment that protection of civilised ideals seemed most important, it was simultaneously a difficult concept to continue to defend. Progress was, by contrast, more tangible and achievable. In addition, attaching the purpose of the university to technological development and economic growth aligned to government aims – and they did not require the university to sustain an absolute and unmistaken authority over truth. While some claimed that dissenting knowledge would instead provide a better foundation for a robust democracy, to many observers, dissent seemed wasteful and arrogant, diverting public money to self-indulgence.

By the 1980s these sources of uncertainty converged. The university’s guardianship of the purity of knowledge seemed nonsense. The purpose of the separation of government from the production of knowledge was called into question. The tangible value of the public’s investment was difficult to ascertain. At the same time, paradoxically, research and education were more important than ever, forming the foundation of national competitiveness in a global economy.

It was at this point that the universities, in order to shield themselves from government control, chose to enter the market, relying especially on the concept of intellectual property. But the values of the market transformed relationships in and beyond the university. Academic staff, no longer structured to ensure their position as disinterested scholars, were instead interested parties, competing with government, industries and institutions for the ownership of knowledge. The universities continued to trade on the reliability of their knowledge, derived from the tradition of independent scholarship and collegial authority. But now they traded for money. In so doing, they forged an equation between academic and financial worth that undermined the very structures that had made their knowledge uniquely valuable.