Knowledge without wisdom

15th September 2000 at 01:00
NEVER mind education, education, education. Now it's knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. How often are we told that is the key to the future? One of the highest-paid jobs in the corporate world is the CKO - the chief knowledge officer.

This is great news. A new enlightenment must have arrived; philistinism has been put to flight. But somehow, the new status of knowledge does not seem to be heralding a wiser world.

Just as the buzz-word hits the headlines, knowledge is being emptied out of meaning. Today we are told that Knowledge with a capital K is outmoded and rigid. Knowledge as the best that has been known and thought is derided as elitist. It is considered arrogant to suggest that there is an objective body of knowledge, or that certain ideas are superior to others. Instead we have seen a proliferation of' "knowledges", a more egalitarian-sounding christening of all manner of spurious activities with the K-word.

The myriad of new subjects in the university curriculum, from golf studies to curry-making, indicates an acceptance that almost anything becomes valid academic study. But just because the academy has equated banal skills with the objective, universalising power of, for example, science or history, this does not mean they have suddenly become equal.

It does mean that the mundane and the everyday are cast alongside scholarship.

Elsewhere in education, the equation of vocational, skills-based training with academic subjects means that an NVQ in hairdressing and a GNVQ in catering are on a par with physics and English Literature. To suggest that mathematics and perming hair are effectively the same thing reduces analysis and abstract thinking to technical tasks. It also tells the would-be hairdresser that heshe is acquiring knowledge, a gross deception.

Utilitarian skills may be useful in the world of work. But it is a con to teach kids that these skills are as powerful or indeed wonderful as the development of critical faculties.

The hollowing out of the meaning of knowledge is nowhere more apparent than in the business world. The service sector is redefined as a knowledge arena because it produces such profound "ideas" as customer care. At a "knowledge realisation seminar I once attended, myself and fellow employees were told that self-knowledge is far more important than "those ancient, dated philosophers". So much for standing on the shoulders of giants! And what exactly does a CKO do? One job description cites "ensuring intelligent internal company communication" and "allowing individual workers to fulfil their knowledge potential". This amounts to making sure memos are clear, organising notice boards and staff development? To equate routine corporate tasks with centuries of research, argument and verification is ludicrous.

In this context, it is inevitable that knowledge is conflated with information, as illustrated in the current fetishism of the Internet.

Many - especially in DfEE circles - seem to believe that using a search engine is equivalent to research and that unlimited access to the world wide web, with no regard for the understanding required to sift the peripheral from the worthwhile, can substitute for teaching, as though downloading data is the same as assimilating ideas.

The only pupils who can effectively use a spell-check are those who know how to spell.

Once we equate information with knowledge, it is easy to feel as though the world is drowning in too much knowledge. This theory is fashionable at the heart of the knowledge business. In his recent book Realizing the University, the Institute of Education's Professor Ron Barnett notes: "Knowledge has got out of hand. We cannot keep pace with it." So there we have it. The great celebration of expanding knowledges makes the world unknowable.

What seems to have passed Barnett by is that man's ingenuity created the web. It is the knowledge of engineers and scientists which has given us this technology.

But the wonders of humanity's achievements will continue to mystify us unless we reclaim knowledge as our unique capacity to strive towards truths through the application of reason.

With knowledge comes wisdom. It's time we wised up - let's throw out the CKOs and reinstate Knowledge with a capital K.

Claire Fox is the Director of the Institute of Ideas. She appears in What is Knowledge? in Agenda on the BBC World Service, to be broadcast this weekend

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