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.
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.