June 03, 2009

Knowledge is Power

I spent a rather interesting hour talking with Steve Fuller this afternoon about his new book on the sociology of academia.

Now, I know that Steve is often a controversial figure but there was quite a lot to discuss. The recording of the conversation will be available later, but for now here was one train of thought that occurred to me after the discussion.

Early in the book Steve talks about the slogan Knowledge is Power.

I have often thought about this phrase in a negative sense, or at least the contexts in which I have heard it used have been in the sense of Knowledge gives you Power OVER something or someone. Knowledge creates division and a position of advantage. This accentuates difference and in an economic sense makes knowledge something to be protected, siloed or closed off as to make it a social asset is to give away your advantage.

Some might argue that this attitude should be an anathema to Universities but economic realities and the systems of oversight that govern research funding and league tables to a certain extent demand that we move towards this stance.

However, the phrase Knowledge is Power could also be seen in a different perspective. How about Power meaning motive force? Knowledge provides a motive power that opens opportunity, either for the individual or for a community or society? Knowledge is the mechanism that powers creativity and innovation, the catalyst for change, growth and improvement.

In this context rather than restricting access to knowledge, the socialisation of ideas is a more desirable outcome. The more accessible knowledge becomes the more opportunity there is for creativity, innovation and improvement.

The former position in Steve Fuller’s argument is one of the generation of social capital – I guess largely driven through economic considerations. The latter position is about social value – and the issue for society is which is more desirable. The University process of research and teaching should see a transition between the former – research generating new knowledge as social capital and teaching as the process of dissemination – i.e. learning translates social capital into social value.

From my own interests I relate this to the examples of MITs Open Courseware programme, iTunes U, Steeple and other open learning projects. These strike me as extreme examples of generating social value from the capital available in academic institutions. Who benefits from this process? Well, if we take a position of knowledge as a motive power rather than an elitist asset then potentially we all do. By socialising knowledge we create far more opportunities for creativity and new ideas than we do by locking knowledge up – we create opportunity by creating social value.

So, should we be encouraged to open up learning in this way. I don’t know if the economics allow us to do so at this time. Sustainability is a long sought for goal in this sphere and is yet to be established as the norm for many of these projects. It is interesting though that MIT Open Courseware is funded partly through a charitable foundation grant but also through public donations. The idea that social value does not deliver economic reward to the originator of the idea is perhaps something that needs to be tested. We can look to other sectors for examples of how economic models are shifting to digital realities. What is the case, though, is that current frameworks of funding and IP do not perhaps support an easy or rewarding transition from a state of capital to one of value. Steve Fuller indicates an increasing separation of research and teaching across HE and expresses concern that this differentiation damages the overall role of academic institutions, especially in an increasingly complex market for ideas and intellectual authority.

I don’t know if this stacks up but it is an interesting starting point for debate. Better minds than mine may provide a damning critique of this, but hey! I’m learning this stuff again right?

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  1. Robert O'Toole

    I don’t know if the economics allow us to do so at this time.

    One could argue that our current economic turmoil supports your case. For example, if more people had understood the strange mechanisms of corporate finance, the huge risks being entered into in exchange for the credit boom, they might have acted differently.

    Liz Coleman, President of Bennington, argues persuasively that liberal democracy can only be saved by a more open, free-thinking, joined-up higher education. Importantly, she argues that more people should no more about more things: stop the experts from hoarding knowledge. Her Ted talk is really inspirational:


    04 Jun 2009, 10:39

  2. Robert O'Toole

    Or perhaps: more people should know more about more things.

    04 Jun 2009, 10:40

  3. for those not on Twitter here is a c&p of Rob and I taking this discussion further:

    Rob to me:

    Perhaps experts (especially economists) will be expected to explain things to the public more effectively in the future.

    And perhaps that means that public communication skills become much more important in academia, as we trust experts less.

    Me to Rob:

    there is a lot in the interview about public engagement – is this the responsibilty of institutions or individuals?

    consider the distinction between academic, expert and intellectual.

    experts almost by definition depend on protection if their expertise for their authority, so why would they share/explain?

    as opposed to intellectuals who benefit from a public identity.

    now, do we ask/expect academics to act in the former or latter role? Perhaps the current HE environment leans to the former.

    04 Jun 2009, 12:11

  4. Michael Cayley

    Interesting exchange. u consider the spillover effects of publishing ( I.e. Better exchange of ideas, more opportunity for emergent ideas/innovation, better productivity) and the fact that this era of broadband empower individuals means that people ( I.e. Personal publishing ability with global reach) will be distinguish by thier contribution and sharing. Horders of information will be exposed by thier absence. The academic adage “publish or die” will enter the corporate world.(sorry 4 typos, sent by iPhone)

    05 Jun 2009, 03:49

  5. Robert O'Toole

    Warwick’s Teaching & Learning startegy says some interesting things in relation to this issue. The core of the strategy is a definition of what we expect Warwick students to be like when they graduate. It’s a very ambitious definition. One of the points seeks a golden mean between specialisation and connecting with the wider community:

    have the capacity to combine disciplinary detail and rigour with a broader awareness of general issues: they have mastered complex ideas, skills and techniques, but combine these with a broad awareness of more general social, cultural, and intellectual issues;

    It’s a really good document: http://tinyurl.com/pqb32p

    05 Jun 2009, 09:19

  6. Robert O'Toole

    Sorry, that was the wrong url. Here’s the section about graduates: http://tinyurl.com/qn9yje

    05 Jun 2009, 09:20

  7. Michael – the relationship between this and academic publishing is an interesting one, and a topic I will write about later as it relates to some thoughts on risk taking and academic freedom that I think are relevant in this context. For now suffice to say that when you consider where the source of academic authority is derived from you could think of:

    1) Peer Review
    2) Institutional association

    and as a comms person you could certainly add

    3) public profile

    The first one is critical in determining credibility amongst academics, though not necessarily beyond that community. The publish and be damned approach is an anathema to many as it disrupts a model of publishing that is critical in many eyes to the academic process.

    Indeed, the problem here is not how to establish credibility of academics, but how to demonstrate that credibility to other communities where factors 2 and 3 are considered easier markers of authority. I guess that is where institutional strategy comes into play as a facilitator of a) reputation and b) public engagement programmes.

    According to Steve Fuller (remember him! This is based on his stuff after all) you do need academics to operate as closed experts as part of the research process but that this then needs to be translated into social value through the process of publishing/teaching/learning. Academic publishing is ostensibly a public exercise, as are conferences, but in operation they seem more like closed shops. However they are still valuable. What we need to look at is how we bring in to play other channels that can assist with the translation.

    05 Jun 2009, 10:02

  8. I will add publications list and profile of publication journal to sources of academic authority – prestige of channel is important as is the length of your… CV?

    05 Jun 2009, 11:04

  9. Steve Fuller

    Thanks, Tom, for the interview and posting this blog.

    One other complicating factor in the public dissemination of academic research is the commercial nature of publishing. In fact, the very book of mine that has occasioned this blog is featured this week in Times Higher Education because of the restricted publication of paperback academic books if there is no obvious textbook market—a judgement that is made quite independently of the quality or readability or even general interest of the text. Have a look at this:

    During the Festival of Social Science (starting the 15th) I will be blogging on the issues that come from the book and the interview—including the issue of how to feed back new research into a curriculum generally available to all students.

    05 Jun 2009, 14:37

  10. Perhaps it’s time for your first eBook!

    05 Jun 2009, 14:49

  11. Steve Fuller

    I have now put the first posting on my Festival blog, which includes a link to this blog:


    10 Jun 2009, 20:15

  12. frank worthington

    Interesting stuff, i suppose. But does it really matter whether we have to pay £60 for immediate access to Steve’s book or wait for the relatively cheaper paperback version? I’ll probably go for £60’s worth of Steve’s ‘pearls of wisdom’ because I’m really keen to read what he has to say, and intrigued as to whether or not his book includes any kind of ‘critical management’ inspired call to arms that promotes the pressing need for us to seek to translate the well trodden analyses of the consequences of change in HE (and elsewhere in the real world of work) into some kind of collective defensive activism to preserve the traditional academic values – and of course working condition in HE – that are apparently under threat.


    10 Jun 2009, 21:02

  13. Frank – reference to ‘defensive activism’ tends to make me worry as barricades are all well and good but institutions and individuals must be prepared to accept change as somewhat inevitable less we fall into an environment of stagnation and decay.

    I have tended to find that change happens into several ways – Imposed or organic; bottom up top down; change derived from internal drivers or in response to external factors; planned or unexpected. We exist in a stat of flux rather than stasis and so a leap to the barricades may not be the wisest option. Sure, HE needs to stand up for what it believes is fundamental, but not to the exclusion of the new. What may be critical is the extent to which the sector and those within it are able to set the change agenda in their own interests rather than being in a constant state of reaction to external events. If you feel that your position is under threat then perhaps that is the fault of an ability for the sector to drive the direction of HE as opposed to leaving it to our political masters.

    I may write more about this as I think there are interesting points to discuss around whether those academic values we rely on – academic freedom for example – have slipped into a bunker mentality rather than providing us with positive opportunities to empower academic and student communities to challenge and explore.

    11 Jun 2009, 11:13

  14. Limo Hire

    Maybe we need to bring in the first e-book

    16 Jun 2009, 18:11

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