Knowledge Politics #2: What Universities Do

This is my second post in a series on the politics of knowledge. My goal with these posts is to consider a basic question of critical university studies: How do universities differ from other kinds of social organization such as government agencies, corporations, and cause-oriented nonprofits? What is the importance of higher education? What kind of constituency does it present? What does it mean to build a social institution around the transmission and discovery of knowledge? What is “knowledge” in this context and what are its politics?


I didn’t answer these questions last time and I won’t answer them now. The previous post cited a number of recent arguments for the university as a site of public good. In this post, I want to keep on asking what the university does and how its operations can be understood in relation to politics. I apologize in advance for the fact that my argument is not better articulated. I am wrestling with these questions and welcome comments and feedback.

To begin with, I want to mention three different things that I believe universities do. Not being an expert in the sociology or mechanics of education, I won’t be able to give detailed statistics or explain exactly how each of these three processes works. But I want to draw attention to them because it seems to me that they are not always conceived in relation to each other or to politics.


1) The first thing that universities do is teach and train university students in a variety of fields. This is the most obvious and central task of higher education, the one that receives the most attention and is most often at the heart of controversy. Current controversies over what to teach, how to teach, and who to teach all have to do with this basic function of colleges and universities. What should we be teaching? What do students need to know? Who gets to be a student and where? What is the cost in dollars of a BA, MA, or MBA? What is its value in other terms? What kind of training do students receive and how does this different from one institution to another?

The political implications of these questions are undeniable because we are talking about the mainstream, common (but not at all universal) training of adults. But what kind of training is this? From one perspective, it is essentially a professional training, getting people ready for particular jobs. From another perspective, it is training for responsible citizenship or—even more grandly—for responsible stewardship of humanity and our ecosystem. If the former, then there is no need for universal access to education. Instead, each person can receive just the training they need to fill in their particular slot in society. If the latter, then access and “gen-ed” core requirements become crucial parts of defining the future world. It seems to me that this is where the current debate over higher education is mostly taking place, and these are the terms on which arguments are most often made.


2) Another thing that universities do is support advanced research at the edge of diverse fields of knowledge. Few would deny the importance of this function of higher education, but it is more difficult to understand its political implications and more difficult to mount an argument on behalf of higher education in these terms. That’s because the “edge” of a field of knowledge is by definition partly unknown. If the classroom is a site ripe for general controversy, because everyone feels qualified to assert what ought to be taught there, then the research edge of any field is necessarily absent from mainstream discussion. There can be no easy way to talk about its “politics” because such an edge cannot even be articulated in plain language. Only a few people understand what is there, at the edge. And because they value it as an edge of knowledge, they are usually loathe to try and “translate” it into directly political terms.


(This is importantly not true of technological innovation. The thing about technology is that it can be distributed and used by people who don’t understand how it works. So the distant research edge of chip design or electrical dynamics can, under the right circumstances, be transformed into a handy gadget that massively effects the way we live. Think of radio, telephone, internet, cell phones, weapons, cars, and everything else we now take for granted. So when we talk about the politics of knowledge, we should be careful not to confuse knowledge with technology. Unlike advanced technology, advanced knowledge cannot easily be distributed to massive numbers of people. One can buy the technological products of knowledge in a store, but one cannot in the same way purchase the knowledge itself.)

Although their relationships to politics are very different, these two functions of universities are both fairly uncontroversial. Who would deny that universities both educate students and support advanced research? These are both political processes. They need to be analyzed in very different ways because the latter takes place at the edge of what is known and for that reason cannot be easily assimilated to the discourse of politics. However:


3) There is a third function of universities, which to my mind is at least as profound—perhaps even more profound—in its political implications, but which to a large extent goes unremarked. This is that universities play a large role in determining the structuring of primary and secondary schooling. As the “top” of the educational system, universities shape everything that we encounter in school from the time we enter kindergarten. As stated above, I don’t feel qualified to accurately describe all the ways in which universities influence primary and secondary schooling. Clearly the training of teachers and the development of textbooks and curricula is part of this. But more fundamentally, universities model—no, they actually constitute—the fields of knowledge to which students are introduced starting in the earliest grades.


This is an aspect of the politics of knowledge that isn’t usually discussed. We tend to think of primary and secondary education politics in terms of access and curriculum, but we rarely connect this with the questions that are at stake in higher education. Yet these questions run through the entire educational system: What fields of knowledge are important and for whom? When universities are viewed in this light, as the keystones of an entire educational system, then their potential impact on current and future politics becomes evident. At the same time, it becomes clear that the language of political debate is not sufficient to discuss these issues because it leaves out the texture and depth of knowledge. One cannot discuss “curriculum” in the same way with regard to both third grade reading and postgraduate professional training. Yet in both cases, curriculum is precisely the site of politics and of the creation of the future.


Image credits: Charts of educational systems in various countries.

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