More Thoughts on Knowledge and Higher Education

by Mark English

Last month I wrote a short piece on what I see as a rapidly developing crisis in the education sector and beyond. Open-ended and exploratory, my observations were part of an ongoing attempt to articulate and defend a basically knowledge-centred view of learning and culture.

I referred briefly to the arts, but not specifically to arts education. My point was simply that certain art forms embody knowledge of the world and may be judged according to how truly they are perceived to reflect significant human realities. This is a topic to which I hope to return.

In the piece in question I distinguished between theoretical and practical forms of knowledge. I also distinguished between practical disciplines which depend on a body of theory and those which don’t. Obviously only the former need the support of the elaborate formal structures of secondary and higher education.

The intensity of Daniel Kaufman’s negative reaction to what I was saying (or what he took me to be saying) was somewhat surprising. I replied to his comments at the time; but there is more to be said.

“There is a certain irony,” Dan wrote, “in bemoaning a lack of rigor in one’s targets in an argument-free scatter-shooting session. Where is the intellectual rigor in your piece?”

My argument was based on the premise that theory is valuable only insofar as it serves a specific function or purpose, only insofar as it is necessary to achieve a particular practical, epistemic or pedagogical end.

The socializing and civilizing function of education necessarily involves the inculcation of values and codes of behavior. There are, of course, strong differences of opinion concerning which values are most important and often parents will choose schooling options for their children based on their views on these matters. Higher education, however, is – or should be – less concerned with imparting general moral and social values than with specifically academic values. Certainly, higher education institutions should not be in the business of promoting particular political points of view. Academic values, as they have developed in the West, clearly preclude this. Propagandizing is simply not an appropriate function of universities. As we all know, however, such standards have not always been upheld.

Higher education in Germany in the 1930’s was tainted by Nazi propagandizing. Likewise, higher education in Russia before World War 2, and later in the Eastern Bloc generally, was unduly influenced by official Marxist doctrines. Various forms of left-wing thought also took root in Western universities and, over time, combined with a variety of progressive movements to create an intellectual environment which became increasingly hostile to scholars and students whose ideological orientation did not conform.

Applied to persons, ideological neutrality may not be possible, or even desirable. But, with respect to scholarly – as well as scientific – methods and their application, ideological neutrality is a defining feature. It is a necessary condition for scientific and scholarly seriousness and worth. Without the application of ideologically neutral methods, science becomes pseudo-science and scholarship becomes pseudo-scholarship.

Such abuses can lead to an undermining of trust in genuine science and genuine scholarship. As it happens, science is still widely respected. Scholarship less so. This may be in part because the nature of scholarship as it developed in European and related cultures is no longer widely understood.

Our models of scholarship arose within the context of a civilization which assigned a high – sometimes immeasurable – value to certain ancient texts and so needed and developed sophisticated methods not only of analysis and interpretation but also of authentication. Both textual criticism and the study of languages and language change (i.e. historical linguistics) played crucial roles in this process.

Some of this scholarship – biblical scholarship, certainly, but also some classical and Indo-European philology – was not “ideologically neutral”. All too often results were driven by preconceived ideas rather than by the application of strict scholarly methods. But, despite the inevitable bias in many quarters, good scholarship prevailed and wrongheaded ideas were eventually cast aside. Over the centuries – and particularly over the last 250 years or so – the application of text-critical and philological methods to classical, biblical and other texts has dramatically enhanced knowledge and understanding and changed the way we see ourselves and our history.

Such examples are intended merely to illustrate a point. No attempt is being made to give a comprehensive account of what scholarship is or could be. In fact, I am more concerned here to say what it is not, rather than what it is.

I am sure that Dan would agree with me that academic teaching and research should not be politicized. But my point is that unless you have a firmly knowledge-based view of research and higher education there is no way to prevent the politicization of content. If “anything goes on the knowledge front” (as I put it in the previous essay), then such abuses will eventually follow. It is no accident that postmodern views on knowledge went hand in hand with the politicization of many subject areas in the late-20th century, just as similar movements in the 1920’s and 1930’s – precursor movements to postmodernism – facilitated earlier instances of overt politicization.

Karl Popper, of course, took a similar line to the one I am taking. If the claims of a theory are not falsifiable by any conceivable evidence (as in Marxist theory or the explanations of Freudian psychology), then such theories do not represent scientific knowledge. My concerns, clearly, are not just with the sciences but also with literary and other forms of scholarship. Knowledge may not be unifiable in a strict sense, but nor is it divisible into clearly-defined and preordained categories.

Dan wrote:

Understand that as far as I am concerned, unless you have some argument against my characterization [of the functions of the university] — which happens to have the advantage of being historically true — I view the sort of thing you say here as having been decisively refuted. […] Your own view, of course, is ahistorical, which is odd given that you are prone to criticize others for ahistoricism in other contexts. Science and engineering were not a part of university education for the majority of its history, and only become so in the wake of the industrial revolution.

Historical accounts of universities and the functions they served are important and useful but, just as the etymology of a word may not reflect its current meaning, so the history of an institution doesn’t mandate what the institution in question should be doing now or in the future.

“Sadly, you are likely to get your wish,” Dan continued, “and the university will very likely be purged of its humanistic and literary studies. The coronavirus may hasten this, but the economic forces pushing in this direction have been building since the Second World War. Of course, I wrote extensively on this too — see my essay “Destroying the University” — and […] you ignore that as well.”

Nowhere did I suggest that literary or other humane studies should no longer have a place in the university. The point of my polemic is actually to defend them.

In his essay, “Destroying the University”, Dan sets out the functions of the modern university: “(1) the acculturation of the next generation of elites, by way of the civilizing influence of the Studia Humanitatis that stretches back to the Renaissance and is the source of our present-day liberal arts curriculum; (2) the education of the next generation of scientists and engineers; (3) the preservation of the existing body of human knowledge and expansion of it by way of academic research; and (4) the preparation of students for entry into the “white collar” workforce.”

In broad terms, this is an accurate characterization and I am in agreement with Dan’s basic point that the fourth function is the problematic one: the attempt to turn universities into instruments of mass education was flawed from the start. Not only is the current system unnecessarily wasteful and expensive, with staff generally academically overqualified for the work they are required to do, the “wild and misguided expansion of [the university system] over recent decades” (Dan’s words) and the distortions and innovations which accompanied this expansion were largely politically driven. In contrast to this, most previous changes – like the introduction over time of new sciences and technical disciplines – were organic developments necessitated by social, cultural or economic changes in the broader society.

Finally, there is a terminological point which may be worth mentioning and which may help to explain how and why my general view differs from Dan’s. He favors – and identifies with – studia humanitatis which is a specifically humanist concept. My educational and cultural background aligns me more with the classical and medieval notion of studia liberalia (or artes liberales).

The differences are subtle but not insignificant. The scholars who advocated studia humanitatis drew a clear line between humane studies and more formal or scientific disciplines, focusing on the former. They also had certain characteristic social and moral preoccupations and were committed to a decidedly optimistic view of human nature and the human condition. The older tradition, by contrast, was less inclined to moralizing and promoted a broader and less binary view of knowledge and understanding.

10 Comments »

  1. Mark, thank you for this clarifying essay.

    I think that you and I agree to a great degree about the University. Your piece helps make clear where we differ:

    (1) I’m not at all convinced that politicization is an inevitable or unstoppable result of the lack of an exclusive focus on knowledge.

    (2) I think you underestimate the importance of Purpose #1 of the university — “the acculturation of the next generation of elites” — and the extent to which it depends upon education, the purpose of which is not primarily epistemic. Indeed, I think I could make the case — especially in our current social and political environment — that it is the single most important (and most currently neglected) function of the University.

    Also, I should say that I appreciate the distinctions you make in the end and agree that we likely differ on that front. I believe that there has long been and should continue to be an aspirational dimension to higher education.

    Finally, I apologize for the unnecessarily combative rhetoric I’ve contributed to some of our previous exchanges on this topic (and others).

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    • Dan

      Thanks for the apology. No hard feelings.

      If we didn’t agree on some very crucial things I don’t think I would have been motivated to write for the site for so long. But, as you confirm, there are also differences — on the role of the university (as well as some other matters).

      “I’m not at all convinced that politicization is an inevitable or unstoppable result of the lack of an exclusive focus on knowledge.”

      I am advocating a primary focus on knowledge, not an exclusive focus. It may be that politicization is not inevitable or unstoppable in the absence of such a focus (I think it is), but obviously such a focus works against the tendency to politicize content.

      “… I appreciate the distinctions you make in the end and agree that we likely differ on that front. I believe that there has long been and should continue to be an aspirational dimension to higher education.”

      All learning is aspirational in one sense or another.

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  2. “…the attempt to turn universities into instruments of mass education was flawed from the start.” I think this is the tricky bit, because we do think of higher education as a good, as good for democracy, and do see obvious persistent differences in take-up by social class. Now if one has certain views regarding educability, then you might like to argue this is fine, and that we already have the right amount of social mobility (a bit like the “natural rate of unemployment”). The social democratic idea was that there must be an unmet need, with estimates of roughly how many places you might have to provide, especially as you might have to wait for generational social change in expectations. In Australia, the move to a free tertiary education in 1975 saw some increase in women graduates, but no great shift in the social class of origin overall. So the funding was changed. Currently, Aboriginal Australians are 2-3% of the population, and ~2.4% of those commencing medicine (2017), so maybe something is going right.

    There is a fun report on the Australian move in the 1960s to a two-tiered tertiary education system, where a major stumbling block has been that lecturers at the new (lower tier) “technical and further education colleges” all aspired to present more and more sophisticated material to their students – they weren’t second-tier even if their institution was. In many domains, they could argue that technological change meant a higher level of skills were necessary for their students. In the 1980s, like many other places, we moved to a single tiered system.

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    • David

      The points that you concentrate on are not at all at the centre of what I am saying. One problem with your comment is that you seem at times to be conflating the university with post-high-school education in general.

      Universities have evolved to be a certain kind of institution, i.e. dealing with certain types of courses, professional and academic. My concerns happen to relate more to the academic side, to scholarship — which has never been a particularly popular or lucrative area but which is important nonetheless. My main point is that this tradition has been devalued and debased.

      “… we do think of higher education as a good, as good for democracy, and do see obvious persistent differences in take-up by social class.”

      This is very confused and has little or nothing to do with what I am saying. Yes “higher education” is a good thing. But then *all* stages and levels of education are good. The phrase “good for democracy” is ambiguous. I won’t try to spell this out. It’s obvious enough.

      “Now if one has certain views regarding educability…”

      This is potentially offensive.

      “… then you might like to argue this is fine, and that we already have the right amount of social mobility (a bit like the “natural rate of unemployment”).”

      The conflation of social mobility with *university* education is a nonsense in today’s world — unless you want to broaden the meaning of the word “university” to encompass all post-high-school educational institutions and methods of learning.

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      • Hi Mark. I assure you I wasn’t suggesting that you hold offensive views – I would be quite up front if I was ;). But I don’t think you can so easily split off the relationship between social class and access to the scholarly life, quite aside from the professions. Even in 1520 Bologna had 45 professors of law, 28 professors of medicine, and only 25 in arts. And 150 years of professionalized science in universities is enough for me. Being an academic is not low status, even though it feels like it sometimes.

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  3. Well written piece, Mark, and helps clear up a lot. We’ll still have disagreements in future, but I agree with much of this.

    I would say that the major expansion of America’s education system, in the 1960s, was largely driven by technological, economic and political issues (in the context of the Cold War). It was clear that the American economy was going to need an upgrade in education in a big way; despite the development of career oriented education models as early as the late 19th Century, the predominant model remained the ‘liberal arts.” This did provide some benefit socially, and by the end of the ’60s, we had a surprisingly well-read populace, which increased literacy did not begin to recede until the 1980s when poisoned by a combination of well-meaning liberals pushing social and personal matters over reading, inquiry, and critical thinking on the one hand, and conservatives (coming into power under Reagan) opposed to mass education and suspicious of a well-informed electorate on the other. (It has never been just the left or just the right that has fomented retrograde social upheaval, it has always been weird confluences of the two.)

    At any rate, I owe my own education to the college expansion of the ’60s, so I profess some nostalgia for the liberal education model that after all provided me opportunities to engage the cultural legacies of the world, particularly that of Europe.

    One other little matter: “what I see as a rapidly developing crisis in the education sector” – I don’t know about where you live, but America has been suffering one crisis in education after another for the past 170 years or so; In Germany such calls of alarm go back way further, into the 18th Century. The expansion of the college systems in the ’60s was driven by debates in the ’50s over apparent ‘crises’ involving our expanding economy, new technologies developed during WWII and of course competition with the Soviet Union, not to mention the rise of the Civil Rights claim for educational opportunities, etc. etc. The development of the “Socratic method” in teaching law was a response to a crisis in education. The arrival of waves of immigrants at the end of the 19th century was seen as a ‘crisis’ one response to which was development of the High school; which proved useful during the Depression as it provided a warehouse for those in their later teens who would otherwise overwhelm the weak job market.

    And I could go on. The point is that every such ‘crisis’ offers opportunities, and every opportunity comes with its own future ‘crisis.’ The deeper reasons for such ongoing phenomena are worthy of exploration. I agree that educational systems in the post-modern era are in a mess. But I don’t think we can go back to any previous model, and its unclear what ‘going forward’ would actually mean. Probably another new crisis, if history teaches us anything.

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  4. The search for a theory of literature (and related disciplines) as a form of knowledge has always been wrong-headed. Not far off from Ionian Hecataeus a few years back:

    “I write what I believe to be the truth, for the Greeks [i.e. Homer] tell many stories which, it seems to me, are absurd.”

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  5. Or maybe we could turn the tables a bit and say this. We know the whole point of literature is not knowledge or truth. That’s not what stories, poems, movies are for. The question is more pointed for philosophers. Is philosophy more like literature in doing something other than acquiring knowledge? Or is there a fundamental tension, recognized for ages, between the philosopher and the poet?

    Why does this matter for the current university scholar?

    Literature, film, art. These have always struggled to find patrons. They (very) uneasily carve out room for themselves in the modern university by claiming to teach “critical thinking” or some sort of “acquisition of cultural capital.” But that’s never what art has been for. So the literary type always knows he/she doesn’t quite fit in the classroom but will take whatever chance is offered.

    It’s more a question to be answered by the philosopher. Does the philosopher also play a sort of game in promising argumentative skills that will lead to better lawyering, or is there a genuine schism between whatever art does and the slow-by-slow accumulation of knowledge that aligns philosophers with scientists and therefore legitimates their place in the truth-building university?

    The great irony being that critical theorists and number-crunching administrators have blown up the institution anyway for any other than pre-professional social justice crusaders.

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  6. Daniel Plate

    “We know the whole point of literature is not knowledge or truth.”

    Literature can be seen to embody knowledge in certain senses of the term. It can also be judged according to whether or not it rings true.

    Obviously novels and plays and films can tell us a lot about the culture within which they were written or made. They are expressions of a culture (as well as being expressions of the individual writer, etc.) and as such can give us privileged access to (i.e. knowledge of) other periods and places.

    Literary works and films can also — if they are any good — represent or embody a different kind of knowledge: intuitive insights into human (social and psychological) realities.

    Certainly literature etc. is not about acquiring or testing or assessing knowledge in the way science and traditional scholarship are.

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  7. There’s something deeply problematic about approaching literature as a historian or anthropologist — looking into Homer for information about helmet construction. And though I take your point about art as providing “intuitive insights into human […] realities,” I don’t think this gets at what the literary is about either. It’s a kind of benign by-product a person might experience, and because it resembles some sort of knowledge so closely, we get tempted into making “insight into the human condition” a justification for the place of art in educational institutions.

    I’ll never get over my shock when I first felt the literary force of Socrates in “The Apology.” Those impossibly eloquent opening lines about the eloquence of his accusers and Socrates’s own lack of eloquence (unless truth is an eloquence) — the sheer literary bomb he drops right at the start. And the mission to disprove the Oracle and establish his own ignorance. I still feel vertigo reading it, trying to unfold the layers of irony and figure out what to make of the riddle.

    And then to teach “The Apology” — for me, as a literature professor — is to feel the deadening effect of defusing a bomb by exposing it to the air of an institution.

    The teaching of “The Apology” in a literature class can be framed as “the acculturation of the next generation of elites” or as part of the preparation of a white-collar workforce. But I have to wrench myself into quite a pretzel to do it. There’s something so subversive right at the heart of a text that, at the same time, is foundational to the history of the academy.

    Sorry. I use these posts partly to argue, partly to figure out what I think in real time. My point is, my experience of teaching great texts has always been to be shaken by my feeling of hypocrisy in reading the canned mission statement on the wall of the standard classroom and then pointing students to words that blow up any canned thought whatsoever.

    I understand and experience first-hand all the concerns Dan lays out in “Destroying the University” and some of the concerns Mark signals in this piece. But I can’t help but feel the uneasy place of at least the literary/artistic part of the Humanities in the university stems largely from the unsettling nature of the creative impulse itself. Never at home anywhere.

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