Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Knowledge Factory Crisis: A different, anthropological way to view universities

Nothing we humans do lives up to its own mythology. We are fallible, social, competitive, acquisitive, our understanding is incomplete, and we have competing interests to address, in our lives and as a society.  I posted yesterday about universities as 'knowledge factories, reacting to a BBC radio program that discussed what is happening in universities, when research findings seem unrepeatable.

That program, and my discussion of what is going on at universities, took the generally expressed view of what universities are supposed to be, and examined how that is working.  The discussion concerned technical aspects that related to the nature of scientific information universities address or develop.  That is, in this context, their 'purpose' for being.  How well do they live up to what they are 'supposed' to be?

Many of my points in the post were about the nature of faculty jobs are these days, and the way in which pressures lead to the over-claiming of findings, and so on.  I made some suggestions that, in principle, could help science live up to its ideal.

Here in this post, however, I want to challenge what I have said about this.  Instead, I want to take a somewhat distanced viewpoint, looking at universities from the outside, in a standard kind of viewpoint that anthropologists take, rather than simply accepting universities' own assessments of what they are about.

Doing poorly by their ideal standard
My post noted ways in which universities have become not just a 'knowledge factory', but more crass business factories, as making money blatantly increasingly over-rides their legitimate--or at least, stated--role as idea and talent engines for society.  Here's a story from a few years ago about that, that is still cogent.  The fiscal pursuit discussed in this post is part of the phenomenon.  As universities are run more and more as businesses, which happens even in state universities, they become more exclusive, belying their original objective which (as in the land-grant public universities) was to make higher education available to everyone.  In addition to becoming money makers themselves, academia has become a boon for student-loan bankers, too.

But this is a criticism of university-based science, and expressed as it relates to how universities are structured.  That structure, even in science, leads to problems of science.  One might think that something so fundamentally wrong would be easy to see and to correct.  But perhaps not, because universities are not isolated from society--they are of society, and therein lies some deep truth.

Excelling hugely as viewed anthropologically
If you stop examining how universities compare to their ideals, or to what most people would tell you universities were for, and instead look at them as parts of society, a rather different picture emerges.

Universities are a huge economic engine of society.  They garner their very large incomes from various sources: visitors to their football and basketball stadiums, students whose borrowed money pays tuition, and agencies private and public that pour in money for research.  Whether or not they are living up to some ideal function or nature, they are a major and rather independent part of our economy.

Their employees, from their wildly paid presidents, down to the building custodians, span every segment of society.  The money universities garner pays their salaries, and buys all sorts of things on the open commercial economy, thereby keeping many other people gainfully employed.  Their activities (such as the major breakthrough discoveries they announce almost daily) generate material and hence income for the media industries, print and electronic, which in turn helps feed those industries and their relevant commercial influences (such as customers, television sales, and more).

Human society is a collective way for we human organisms to extract our living from Nature.  We compete as individuals in doing this, and that leads to hierarchies.  Overall, over time, societies have evolved such that these structures extract ever more resources and energy.  Via various cultural ideologies we are able to keep things going smoothly enough, at least internally, so as not to disrupt this extractive activity.

Religion, ownership hierarchies, imperialism, military, and other groups have self-justifications that make people feel they belong.  This contributes to building pyramids--whether they be literal, or figurative such as religions, universities, armies, political entities, social classes, or companies.  Often the justification is religious--nobility by divine right, conquest as manifest destiny, and so on.  That not one of these resulting societal structures lives up to its own ideology has long been noted.  Why should we expect universities to be any different?  These are the cultural ways people organize themselves to extract resources for themselves.

Universities are parasites on society, very hierarchical with obscenely overpaid nobles at the top?  They show no limits on the trephining they do on those who depend on them, such as graduating students with life-burdening debt?  They churn through those who come to them for whom they claim to 'provide' the good things in life?  Of course!  Like it or not, by promising membership and a better life, they are just like religions or political classes or corporations!

Institutions may be so caught up in their belief systems that they don't adapt to the times or competitors, or they may change their actions (if not always their self-description).  If they don't adapt they eventually crumble and are replaced by new entities with new justifications to gain popular appeal or acceptance.  However, fear not, because relative to their actual (as opposed to symbolic) role in societies, universities are doing very well: at present, they very clearly show their adaptability.

In this anthropological sense, universities are doing exceedingly well, far better than ever before, churning resources and money over far faster than ever before.  Grumps (like us) may point out the failings of lacking to live up to our own purported principles--but how is that different from any other engine of society?

In that anthropological sense, whether educating people 'properly' or not, whether claiming more discoveries that stand up to scrutiny, universities are doing very, very, very well.  And that, not the purported reason that an institution exists, is the measure of how and why societal institutions persist or expand.  Hypocrisy and self-justification, or even self-mythology, are always part of social organization. A long-standing anthropological technique for understanding distinguishes what are called emics, from etics: what people say they do, from what they actually do.

Yes, there will have to be some shrinkage with demographic changes, and fewer students attending college, but that doesn't change the fact that, by material measures, universities are incredibly successful parts of society.

What about the intended material aspect of the knowledge factory--knowledge?
But there is another important side to all of this, which takes us back to science itself, which I think is actually important, even if it is naive or pointless to crab at the hypocrisies of science that are explicable in deep societal terms.

This has to do with knowledge itself, and with science on its own terms and goals.  It relates to what could, at least in principle, advance the science itself (assuming such changes could happen without first threatening science's and scientists' and universities' assets).  That will be the subject of our next post.


homolog.us said...

The Henry Ford method of mass production was so successful that it had been applied everywhere ranging from McDonalds to schools and colleges. You may take a look at the books by Ivan Ilich. He discussed these ideas in early 70s.


He also noticed similar harmful mass production in the medical system. One of his books - "Medical Nemesis" covers this topic. In a mass-production or industrialized medical system, doctor's goal changes from healing the person to giving the person maximum number of mass-produced units of "treatment", namely tests, pills, etc. You need to be in India to see this system taken to an extreme.

Biomedical research being the child of mass-production academia and mass-production medical racket gets the worse of both.

Ken Weiss said...

Illich was on our faculty here for some years, though I never met him.
It is frustrating to look at universities and current research industries from their own professed ethos, because we fall so short. I can't say whether had I been senior and with a career's experience, say, decades ago when I started out in the game, how I would have felt. After all, elders always groan about how bad the new generation is doing.

Maybe all the money for research, all the journals, and less teaching 'load', and the powerful equipment and computing power &c are making science much, or much much, better than before. We gripe about the imperfections from inside the system, not realizing its positives (which doesn't deny or gainsay the negatives). From the more distanced perspective I tried to express in this post, we can see more of how the system actually works, rather than how it claims it works, and we can either become cynical or try to see a different viewpoint.

Cynicism always works for human society because we're so vain and flawed a species. But the kind of 'energy based' viewpoint I expressed above, about this aspect of human culture and its role in the physical universe as an engine of resource consumption and so on, maybe it makes more sense. In a sense that has been noted in various ways before, human culture (as life itself) is an entropy generator. Universities are but one part of the system that works this way, and it does in through hierarchies, consumption, and so on. That, at least, is one way to think of things--though it does not in any way dispel the internal hypocrisy.

homolog.us said...

> they are just like religions or political classes or corporations!

They are not 'just like' corporations. Legally they ARE corporations.

If you want to start a new college/university in any of the 50 states, you will first have to register a corporation. Then that corporation may choose to sign-up as a non-profit with the IRS (non-profit college) or not (for-profit college).

One condition for getting non-profit status is that the corporation cannot use its resources to promote one political party or candidate over another. We know how well that is working out.


It is clear that universities are defrauding the society in many different ways, ranging from pushing kids to student debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and non-profit abuses to discriminating against smart Asian students. Your suggested changes are too little, too late. This entire system must (and will) go.