Sunday, September 27, 2015

Does Knowledge Matter?

The currently fashionable view in education is that knowledge does not matter. 

The thesis goes something like this - at a time when you can search for almost anything in Google, why does one need to know anything? 

So, goes the argument, the point of education is not to enhance knowledge, but to enhance professional skills. So, it is not the texts and discussions about ideas and subjects, but rather abilities such as thinking critically is the point. As long as one can do such things, they would be able to know.

There are deep flaws in this view.

First, can one think critically outside any domain? This view of secular professional skills, professional skills outside a domain or practise, undermines the importance of professions itself. While this is symptomatic of the time (where a humble blogger pretends to write about epistemology), the domains remain important and the blogger in question should know the limits of his endeavour. The process of education is structured to initiate a learner into a domain and develop abilities, such as critical thinking, within it. The idea that one could make a learner a critical thinker without grounding on a discipline is missing the point about expertise in the first place.

Second, in the absence of a discipline, the talk is of Competency. However, the model they propagate as new is actually quite old, the Europeans have been training on competency for half a century, though the degree fetish in Europe is not as ubiquitous as America and Europeans never mixed up competency education with Higher Learning. But, even if we accept the fashionable doctrine of competency-based education, we know that competencies divorced from discipline represent a fairly limited perspective of what humans do. Flaunted with the badge of 21st century learning, this is actually a belated coming of age some of the twentieth century ideas, that most human beings should not think outside work. However, this is very dated, given that machines are taking over all the jobs that does not require human thinking outside the procedural tasks  - and thinking is the only competency worth pursuing left in contention. 

So, this formula of knowledge being outdated and education being about knowledge-neutral competencies is deeply counter-educative, a doctrine of dumbing down in disguise. This still thrives, because the institutional curators of knowledge, the universities, have lost sight of what knowledge is about. Most universities have become, mostly because of the public funding and political stewardship, bureaucratic institutions, too engrossed in institutional navel-gazing and linguistic mastery, and too alienated. So, knowledge in an university setting has become too much about the system itself and disciplinarity has come to represent linguistic mastery alienated from practice. This knowledge, of a linguistically consistent truth, is more valued within the academe than outside, so much so that we have an expression - Academic Knowledge - full of derogatory implication. 

But away from the buzz of competencies and the snobbery of universities, knowledge still matters. Knowledge is more than the search results of Google - that would be information - and even knowing more than what search results Google is hiding and for what reason. Knowledge, in our context, is about being aware of the assumptions we live by. There are assumptions behind everyday words - this is indeed what the academicians spend their whole lives on - and there are assumptions behind common actions and searches for truth. One can not google these assumptions, and Wikipedia provides no answers - and there are no shortcuts of figuring out other than immersing oneself into one discipline and looking out to the world standing on firm grounds of disciplinary culture and methodological consistency. Knowledge is about being self-aware - knowing subject positions if we must - and knowing is a continuous act. There may be no finality of knowledge, possibly, but this does not mean that there is no point.


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