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. 

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