[CPE] The Knowledge Gap

2 08 2013

Educators negotiate between two related but distinct demands: (1) the need to preserve knowledge and (2) the need to prepare students to apply knowledge. While complementary in education, the two are not necessarily closely linked. In the United States, they have become distant from each other at all levels of intellectual labor. I have been circling this issue, not quite making progress until I found myself talking about Thomas Kuhn over on the Archdruid Report. There is a way to frame the issue historically in reference to the Enlightenment that clarifies the basis for the present-day disjoint between these two demands. I want to talk through that in the hopes that better grasping that provides us with some insight into fixing the disjunction today.

In using terms like memory and practice, I want to draw your attention to that to which those terms most properly belong, i.e., to the individual. The basic element of an education is not a community, is not a society, is not a nation; it is a person. Communities are built out of persons through a process of education in which individuals acquire knowledge and are shown how it applies in common. This facilitates communication because those sharing it can safely assume principles, facts, and methods in common. That communication, in turn, facilitates the refinement of it that comes from adjusting to concrete, everyday realities in common.

Because this process occurs only in the individual, society can only come into existence insofar as it is able to educate its members in common. Evidence for this abounds, but nowhere quite so clearly as in the formation of a nation. A durable nation must not simply have military and economic stability, it needs social stability, a medium through which its members can communicate and coordinate with each other. As such, one of the more important aspects of nation building is the establishment of a national system of education. The contests that go into curriculum standards are not insignificant–what you teach is the basis for participation in a society, including social identities and common practices.

However, when knowledge advancement occurs very quickly it can outpace that system of education. Instead of a smooth introduction into society, the child in education begins to face a series of  chasms which they must spring across in order to proceed. The curriculum becomes stale and formal, disconnected from the process of knowledge production. This happens in the sciences where textbooks fall well behind data from the more recent scientific work but also in the humanities, as the historical research clarifies and revises details. It’s a bit like a student learning about Russia during the collapse of the USSR; even where they are well-aware of the pace of current events, their full comprehension is hindered by descriptions that presume the present existence of the USSR.

Education shapes society. The constant emphasis on innovation at the height of education and memorization at the lower end, creates and exacerbates social tensions. Those outside the heights of an academic discipline experience much of that discipline’s knowledge as a set of assertions and facts that are simply memorized. The connection of those memorized facts to practical matters is vague at best. Because of this, one set of assertions looks much like another set of assertions. There is little reason for them to support those assertions except social pressure and persuasion. In this situation, social pressure tends to supplant reason in determining what people accept.

At its best, this kind of connection is tenuous and so poorly suited to discussion. I suspect it is one reason why that political debates are so heated these days. Few participants have a clear sense of how their assertions relate to concrete situations. Instead, they arbitrarily select assertions that validate an underlying sensibility, a sensibility rooted in an often healthy sense of belonging. This is my sense of the smoke and heat churned up by creation v. evolution debates; they seem like case studies for how an otherwise healthy sense of belonging  (on both sides!) can fuel intense rivalries around distorted ideologies. That is a long discussion for another time, though.

In the U.S., the division of intellectual labor intensifies this. Primary education concerns itself with memory and memorization while secondary and post-secondary education identify their work with advancement and research. Those in the primary system are not generally expected to be aware of what is going at the secondary and post-secondary level while those in the secondary and (especially!) post-secondary level are encouraged to think of primary education as something inconsequential to their work (unless, perhaps, it is to bemoan the state of primary education). This division is moderated somewhat where the primary system is in close proximity to research universities, but on the whole has been compounded by legislation that seeks to measure educational success through increasing application of standardized tests.

Worse yet, at the highest levels of education, the publish-or-perish model of tenure fosters a cult of innovation that equates research and publication with praxis. While innovation is one of the fruits of praxis, it is not the primary or essential feature of it. The idea that a publishable form of research must be novel encourages researchers to explore new forms of praxis ahead of the capacity of individuals to fully compare them with, or integrate them into, existing forms of praxis. In some disciplines, developing new forms of praxis has replaced making the most of existing and better understood forms.

The cult of innovation is most visible in fields like pharmaceutical research where the big money comes from new concoctions, but the problem is pervasive. The multiplication of methodologies in the social sciences and humanities serves as another exemplar. The failures and limitations of these innovations are rarely well-appreciated because the money and research time shifts to exploring something even newer. If the innovations cause problems, the problems themselves become an invitation to innovate. Instead of letting go of a mediocre solution, its mediocre results become the subject of research. Mediocre solution gets heaped atop mediocre solution.

This approach has been applied so often that the cumulative weight of mediocre fiddling has become crisis and disaster. While innovation-driven solutions remain in high demand, their limitations are increasingly apparent.  The crisis is a crisis of speed, of too much innovation and creativity, not, as some would have it, an absence of it. The nature of this crisis has often been attributed to our decreasing appreciation for the arts and humanities. Many have a sense that these fields cultivate the sort of creativity and critical sensibility necessary to confront the problems of the day. While appealing and romantic, I’m going to suggest that the decline of arts and humanities is more symptom than cause.

Economic issues have tended to accelerate rather than moderate this crisis. Shrinking budgets have forced difficult choices on college administrators. Some have faced the challenge  strategically with clear ideas of what is important and in need of care while others have reacted to immediate threats without appreciating the long term challenges ahead of them. In either case, market forces now exert a much greater force on educational policy; it is the open market that educators see opportunities for funds that governmental organizations cannot provide. Market forces are volatile as the search for new revenue often becomes equated with the search for new innovations to market.

The gap between learning and innovation predates contemporary economic and social pressures, though. Scarcity has intensified a pre-existing conflict. The gap extends at least to Enlightenment debates about the virtues of education, who should benefit from education, the role the educated should have in society, and the content of that education. In order to grasp the present situation, we have to look back over that history.

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