Academic Knowing (2)

(Part 1 here)

“If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery,” said John Henry Newman (1852), “I do not see why a University should have students.” I think this is a crucial insight: what is known at a university is the sort of thing that can (and should) be imparted to students; academic knowledge is the sort of thing you can learn at school. I think a great deal of confusion about the aims and scope, not just of university education but of university-based research as well, stems from forgetting this point.

Let me begin with a somewhat naive epistemological observation. To know something is, at least at some level, to hold a “justified, true belief” about it. To be knowledgeable, in this sense, is the ability to make up your mind about something; and after four years of higher education we expect our students to have made up their minds about a great many things. But we also expect them to be able to change their minds in an orderly and efficient manner in the face of appropriate evidence. My view is that those four years of study, along with the stipulation that whatever is learned during that time should be open to revision, tells us a great deal about the sorts of beliefs that are the proper focus of higher education and academic research. Learning is, at least in part, the acquisition of beliefs and we can see what academic knowledge is by looking at the sort of “truth” and “justification” we attribute to them.

The first thing to notice is that these beliefs will be formed over a period of years. Some of them will be acquired easily and early and will stay with the student throughout their studies. Some of them will be appropriated only gradually and all of them will constantly be repositioned among the totality of the student’s beliefs, including extra-curricular ones. That is, the content and context of the student’s beliefs is constantly changing; as the frame of reference grows, the significance of each belief is reassessed. It is an ongoing process that is never completed. Though it does reach the occasional plateau, especially around exam time, not even graduation brings an end to this process.

There is, then, a world of difference between the sort of thing a scholar can know and the sort of thing a journalist can know. Likewise, there is a big difference between what you can learn from a scholar and what you can learn from a journalist. The catch is that it may take four years to understand what a scholar is trying to tell you, while a journalist is telling you something you can learn over your morning coffee. The catch, there, of course is that there’s no guarantee that it’ll still be true tomorrow.

And this brings me to last point I want to make in this post. A scholar’s knowledge is by definition corrigible. What scholars and students know is subject to constant criticism and correction; it is part of a larger “text” that is forever being updated and revised. That means that the beliefs we hold contain within them the possibility of correction. We know not just what is the case, but what would change our minds. And these critical standards are shared by the community so that it all happens in an orderly fashion.

At university, then, you don’t learn things you are expected to believe the rest of your life. You acquire beliefs along with the critical apparatus you need to adjust them in the face of experience. It’s not so much what you believe that matters but the way you hold your beliefs. It’s not the proposition but your intellectual posture that counts. Once you’ve learned something “for academic purposes” you’re set up to learn other things in the same way. Scholars are “knowledgeable” in the sense that they are “able to know” things. That’s an important part of their value to society.

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