10. Is the Nature of Knowledge Changing?
10.4. Academic Versus Applied Knowledge
In a knowledge-based society, knowledge that leads to innovation and commercial activity is now recognised as critical to economic development. Again, there is a tendency to argue that this kind of knowledge – ‘commercial’ knowledge – is different from academic knowledge. I would argue that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.
I have no argument with the point of view that knowledge is the driver of most modern economies, and that this represents a major shift from the ‘old’ industrial economy, where natural resources (coal, oil, iron), machinery and cheap manual labour were the predominant drivers. I do though challenge the idea that the nature of knowledge has undergone radical changes.
The difficulty I have with the broad generalizations about the changing nature of knowledge is that there have always been different kinds of knowledge. One of my first jobs was in a brewery in the East End of London in 1959. I was one of several students hired during our summer vacation. One of my fellow student workers was a brilliant mathematician. Every lunch hour the regular brewery workers played cards (three-card brag) for what seemed to us large sums of money, but they would never let us play with them. My student friend was desperate to get a game, and eventually, on our last week, they let him in. They promptly won all his wages. He knew the numbers and the odds, but there was still a lot of non-academic knowledge he didn’t know about playing cards for money, especially against a group of friends playing together rather than against each other. Gilbert’s point is that academic knowledge has always been more highly valued in education than ‘everyday’ knowledge. However, in the ‘real’ world, all kinds of knowledge are valued, depending on the context. Thus while beliefs about what constitutes ‘important’ knowledge may be changing, this does not mean that the nature of academic knowledge is changing.
Gilbert argues that in a knowledge society, there has been a shift in valuing applied knowledge over academic knowledge in the broader society, but this has not been recognized or accepted in education (and particularly the school system). She sees academic knowledge as associated with narrow disciplines such as mathematics and philosophy, whereas applied knowledge is knowing how to do things, and hence by definition tends to be multi-disciplinary. Gilbert argues (p. 159-160) that academic knowledge is:
‘Authoritative, objective, and universal knowledge. It is abstract, rigorous, timeless – and difficult. It is the knowledge that goes beyond the here and now the knowledge of everyday experience to a higher plane of understanding…..In contrast, applied knowledge is practical knowledge that is produced by putting academic knowledge into practice. It is gained through experience, by trying things out until they work in real-world situations.’
Other kinds of knowledge that don’t fit the definition of academic knowledge are those kinds built on experience, traditional crafts, trial-and-error, and quality improvement through continuous minor change built on front-line worker experience – not to mention how to win at three-card brag.
I agree that academic knowledge is different from everyday knowledge, but I challenge the view that academic knowledge is ‘pure’, not applied. It is too narrow a definition because it thus excludes all the professional schools and disciplines, such as engineering, medicine, law, business, education that ‘apply’ academic knowledge. These are just as accepted and ‘valued’ parts of universities and colleges as the ‘pure’ disciplines of humanities and science, and their activities meet all the criteria for academic knowledge set out by Gilbert.
Making a distinction between academic and applied knowledge misses the real point about the kind of education needed in a knowledge society and the digital age. It is not just knowledge – both pure and applied – that is important, but also digital literacy, skills associated with lifelong learning, and attitudes/ethics, and social behaviour.
Knowledge is not just ‘stuff’, or fixed content, but it is dynamic. Knowledge is also not just ‘flow’. Content or ‘stuff’ does matter as well as the discussions or interpretations we have about the content. Where does the ‘stuff’ come from that ebbs and flows over the discussions on the internet? It may not originate or end in the heads of individuals, but it certainly flows through them, where it is interpreted and transformed. Knowledge may be dynamic and changing, but at some point, each person does settle, if only for a brief time, on what they think knowledge to be, even if overtime that knowledge changes, develops, or becomes more deeply understood. Thus ‘stuff’ or content does matter, though knowing (a) how to acquire content and (b) what to do with the content we have acquired, is even more important.
Thus it is not sufficient just to teach academic content (applied or not). It is equally important also to enable students to develop the ability to know how to find, analyze, organize and apply information/content within their professional and personal activities, to take responsibility for their own learning, and to be flexible and adaptable to developing new knowledge and skills. All this is needed because of the explosion in the quantity of knowledge in any professional field that makes it impossible to memorize or even be aware of all the developments that is happening in the field, and the need to keep up-to-date within the field after graduating.
To do this learners must have access to appropriate and relevant content, know how to find it, and must have opportunities to apply and practice what they have learned. Thus learning has to be a combination of content, skills, and attitudes, and increasingly this needs to apply to all areas of study. This does not mean that there is no room to search for universal truths, or fundamental laws or principles, but this needs to be embedded within a broader learning environment. This should include the ability to use digital technologies as an integral part of learning, but tied to appropriate content and skills within their area of study.
Also, the importance of non-academic knowledge in the growth of knowledge-based industries should not be ignored. These other forms of knowledge have proved just as valuable. For instance, it is important within a company to manage the every-day knowledge of employees through better internal communication, encouraging external networking, and rewards for collaboration and participation in improving products and services.