The antidote to cranial rectal insertion in the academic world
Last week the principal of Robert Gordon University criticised the notion of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” in his blog. He points out that such a notion forms a key driver of the “appropriateness and legitimacy” of modern universities, but admits that he finds it useless – that it is a “curiously empty formula.”
I agree with him. However, I also find it a distracting false dichotomy to suppose that the only alternative is that knowledge is for “social progress, inclusiveness, economic growth, better health, a higher quality of life”. It is great when it leads to these things, and we should support knowledge that does. But surely the true value of university scholarship is that it can sometimes result in knowledge or ideas that we hadn’t anticipated. Occasionally it is ground breaking. Now you will notice that this is often the argument given in support of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” – that occasionally it leads to truly great thinking. But that argument merely supports it as a form or generating applied-knowledge, it’s just a particular strategy to achieve it. Even Big Business invests into this kind of idea-generation – they fund Blue Skies research because they know that true innovation isn’t planned ahead (by definition!). Society can make the same investment in Universities, so that things we could not even dream about right now are discovered or created for the benefit of society as a whole, and not for any particular commercial or political interests. But that is not “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”
I personally believe Universities should be rooted in the ambition of improving the human condition. And we must be open to the possibility that bettering the human condition for all might actually mean reducing growth or lowering people’s quality of life for some. Indeed, it might include many things that most academics or society at large might currently think to be wrong. For example, who can make the case against perpetual economic growth? Only academics can be in a position to think these unthinkable thoughts and to see where they lead. They might lead somewhere better, or they may lead somewhere worse. But someone has to think them. In fact, most often they lead nowhere – in this model of knowledge generation we must accept that most scholarly research will lead to no practical use. That is the price you pay in exchange for the occasional nugget.
A final note: The other issue I have with “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” is that the term is used as if it is value-free. But elitist academics (of which there are many) have a clear ranking of which knowledge is more valuable than others. My sister has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the work of Dickens. My mother had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Eastenders (amongst other things). Lets not kid ourselves by thinking that modern academics would not value one of those over the other. When many people cite the importance of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, what they actually mean is “I deem some knowledge to be worthy of inquiry for its own sake, and my colleagues and I will decide which knowledge is worthy and which is not.”
Curiosity-driven research is of substantial value, but “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” is merely a faith dogma.
 Note that I acknowledge that I’m not even sure what “improving the human condition” means, exactly, and it should perhaps form a scholarly endeavour in itself, but I am confident that we know it when we see it.
 They may perhaps legitimise the study of Eastenders as a social phenomenon, but not as a body of work in itself. Note that, personally, I am happy to rank topics in terms of value, but I am not trying to justify university scholarship on the basis of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”