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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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