The Knowledge ‘Cult’ and ‘Grand Challenges’

If you spend any time reading about higher education you will invariably come across the idea that, apart from education, the raison d’etre of ‘the university’ is the creation/discovery of knowledge. Being quite an intellectually curious person myself I have a certain sympathy with this view but I must admit to also feeling somewhat conflicted when it comes to the ‘knowledge argument’.

The idea of knowledge-seeking as a sort of higher calling is put forward for three reasons that I can discern and these are:

i)  Knowledge has an innate, almost metaphysical value,

ii) Human beings have a deep psychological need for knowledge and to stifle the quest for knowledge is to somehow deny this basic need,

iii) The search for knowledge has many, often unanticipated, benefits for mankind.

Let’s take the first point first. The idea that knowledge has an innate value is used throughout academia and is often the main weapon used in arguments against what is seen as the ‘corporatisation’ of universities. Universities, such as my own university, DCU, are seen as ‘selling-out’ by having what is referred to as an ‘enterprise’ ethos. Universities are supposed to be places of learning, of discovery and of knowledge creation. I suppose it’s ultimately a matter of opinion but many respected academics, notably Nicholas Maxwell, have begun to question this idea and Maxwell has even suggested that academia’s fixation with knowledge – as opposed to wisdom – has been nothing short of disastrous. Maxwell, a well-regarded philosopher of science, has argued repeatedly – and at great length! – that academia should place much more emphasis on what he refers to as wisdom-inquiry. The focus of wisdom-inquiry should be the ‘problems of living’. His work has inspired UCL’s Grand Challenges vision, a vision that has now become their ‘Wisdom Agenda’. It is interesting that DCU has adopted the ‘Grand Challenges’ approach in its latest strategic plan for research and it is clear that DCU’s strategy – seen as ‘selling out’ by some – is actually in tune with some (but not necessarily all) modern thinking on the role of the university. The key point here is that within academia itself, there is an ongoing conversation as to what the very purpose of university research and scholarship should be and that conversation should not be portrayed as a battle between purist academics and neoliberals.

The idea that humans have a deep-rooted need for knowledge and discovery is widespread among academics and intellectuals. In his book on the discovery of the Higgs particle, “The particle at the end of the universe”, author, Sean Carroll, uses the word ‘we’ when attempting to justify the multi-billion dollar spend on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Although something of a frustrated physicist myself, I often wonder about the use of the word ‘we’ in this kind of context. Who exactly cares about the Higgs particle, an idea that probably owes its origin to some term in a mathematical equation that even the more educated of us do not understand? I’m not entirely sure how I feel about all of this but something in the back of my mind nags at me when I hear scientists who are completely immersed in a subject use the word ‘we’ when attempting to justify research expenditure. There are billions of people in the world for whom the existence or otherwise of the Higgs  is somewhat down their list of priorities. Indeed, when I observe the sheer lack of intellectual curiosity that I see all around me – especially among people who, in a global sense, could be described as ‘affluent’ – I wonder about this belief in the idea that human beings ‘need to know’. Maybe the urge to know and understand the universe is a minority view – for evolutionary reasons perhaps. But even if there is that need, would it not be better to first tackle the ‘problems of living’, as Maxwell calls them, before tackling the really fundamental, rather ‘philosophical’ problems relating to our origins and our existence? Is the existence of the Higgs particle something that is nice to know rather than something that we need to know?

The most common argument for ‘knowledge-inquiry’ is the ‘spin-off’ argument. Scientists (and it is nearly always scientists as opposed to, say, economists) who use the spin-off argument usually pepper what they say with references to GPS systems, MRI scanners, transistors, gene therapy etc. They don’t mention the billions of research dollars that yield very little of tangible value. These are difficult questions though and there is no doubt that humanity always seems to need new knowledge because it constantly seems to create new problems and challenges, challenges that defy solution using existing knowledge. So given that we anticipate the need for new knowledge, how should be go about the business of knowledge discovery? This is where my own engineering background comes in. I have seen on too many occasions to mention, situations in which engineers’ need to solve a practical problem acted as the driving force for the creation of new, often very fundamental, knowledge. ‘Unfashionable science’ I call it. The opposite process, namely the discovery of knowledge leading to unanticipated applications is much rarer in my view. Basic advances in molecular biology, for example, are often inspired by the need to solve practical problems relating to disease. One of mankind’s greatest achievements was managing to land 12 people on the moon and returning them safely to Earth. This was the ‘applied’ (and political) problem par excellence, one that drove knowledge discovery in many areas of science and technology. It was not an example of the quest for knowledge leading to technological spin-offs.

Human beings are masters of knowledge-creation but we are not so good at using that knowledge wisely. For centuries, academics have justified our own existence by claiming a sort of higher moral ground for knowledge and its creation. But there is a growing sense that creating knowledge without developing the tools to use that knowledge wisely, or without being able to solve problems created by that knowledge, is itself a major problem in today’s world. Questions like this are ongoing within academia itself and we need to discuss them more openly and not just assume that the changes that we see happening in the modern university are being imposed by ideologues from outside. They are happening in many cases because academics themselves want change.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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