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Learning about learning: why universities, knowledge and learning are so important in our current era

  • 28 July 2020
  • By Amir Sharif

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Amir Sharif, Associate Dean (International and Accreditations) and Professor of Circular Economy. Amir tweets as @amsharif .

This blog has taken me 23 years to write.

An inordinantly long time for a blog post!

But in truth, it has taken me this length of time to gradually process a single powerful idea that I heard all those years ago at the LSE. As a young and naïve doctoral researcher in the then unfashionable area of artificial intelligence, I eagerly attended several seminar sessions on intelligence and the representation of knowledge. One such seminar was given by Bob Kowalski (Professor of Computational Logic at Imperial College) famed for his treatise on how natural language bridges logic. If my memory serves me right, and apologies for any misattribution in advance, apart from using the London Underground as a metaphor for computational logic, Bob very skillfully took a sideways discussion into the meaning of knowledge that day.

And that, for me, switched my cognitive lightbulb on in terms of how and why we learn.

The objective and reward of learning may not immediately be apparent or understandable. Some might even say, it is a purely cerebral individualised need that extends beyond the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs extending from physical needs of food, water, shelter through to safety, love, belonging, esteem and self-actualisation. We also know in general terms that the very notion of ‘intelligence’ is reliant upon learning (whether organic or machine-based). That data is now becoming a more valuable commodity than natural energy resources, is also apparent (though not yet priced into capital markets thankfully).

But what Bob very adroitly mentioned and what stuck in my head since then was the idea that intelligence always gets trumped by the process of learning. How do we learn? What makes an idea and practice stick in our minds? Is experience better than acquisition of words? What is logical or sensical about learning? Does it even matter? Does anyone care?

Frequently, students – and indeed ourselves – might baulk that learning something if it is of no immediate use is a pointless exercise. But that is to ignore the concept of useful knowledge that might be accessed or interpreted towards action at a later date. Knowledge and learning give the individual an array and a range of different perspectives on reality – the ultimate ontological hammer to bang the epistemological nail.

Recollecting a bit further, part of the seminar that day also suggested universities should really focus on teaching their students how to learn first and then on focusing on teaching the subject matter to avoid being caught up in the process of knowledge acquisition, rather than knowledge application. As he put it (and I paraphrase from memory), ‘students should be learning about learning’. There should be a Bachelor’s Degree not about education and the procedural / scientific approach to learning, but simply a programme of study about learning the practice of learning. Further, that such a programme should be a precursor to any future, thus ‘higher’ education. In short, completing a degree on learning before embarking upon attaining knowledge at degree level (which might conceivably be much shorter than 3 years in length).

Humboldtian ideals of how universities have been providing a higher education for several hundred years, are well documented. No Vice-Chancellor or indeed regulator, Minister for higher education and hopefully even student, would disagree that the purpose of a university is to be a fountain / tree of knowledge, which preserves intellectual and dialectical inquiry against the legion of public opinion and is upheld by the buttresses of fact, evidence, methodology, reason and logic.

Yet as we also know, there are many interpretations of higher learning and knowledge. In the light of recent and undeniably important debates about the decolonisation of academia, we should not consider a Western, European or other regionally centric view of knowledge and learning to be the ‘right’ one.

There are many types of knowledge and learning of course – whether scientific, arts-based, philosophical, religious, spiritual, technical, or interdisciplinary. From Confucius in East Asia right through to the likes of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Al-Ghazali in the near and Middle East – not to mention countless other known and unknown scholars from Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and even Oceania – there have been variations but also complementarities of what constitutes human knowledge over time.

The setting up of seats of learning over a millennium ago also confirms that knowledge itself is not predetermined to be an asset of any particular peoples, but of many cultures. Witness the establishment of universities from antiquity spread over the globe such as Al-Qarawiyyin (859), Al-Azhar (970), Bologna (1088), Al-Nizamiyya (1065), Oxford (1096), Salamanca (1134), Sorbonne (1150), Cambridge (1209), Heidelberg (1386), Santo Thomas (1611), Cordoba (1613), Harvard (1636) and Venezuela (1721). These institutions were both independent of each other but shared a consistent approach to the acquisition of knowledge which, upon the emancipation of knowledge from dogma through fact, debate and philosophical exploration – not least freedom via the Gutenberg press and other technologies – has led to the modern notion of a university as we know it.

But what is knowledge in our present time? What are we really teaching? How do we make use of it? Perhaps lately, given that technology has allowed individuals to become the owners of the means of production themselves (the written word, music, film, even 3D printed products) the real modern-day version of Gutenberg’s device has come to rest in the technology we hold in our hands.

The age we are living in is not so much the age of knowledge, but is in many respects, an age of media.

The age we are living in is not so much the age of knowledge, but is in many respects, an age of media. And it is for this reason that the application of what we might term useful knowledge and how we use and apply this knowledge through learning, is going to become ever more important.

Universities therefore need to be more visibly in the vanguard and safeguard for explaining and directing seekers of knowledge, not only how to learn but also how to apply and make sense of knowledge in the real world. The media era I have mentioned has highlighted all too dismally the lack of rigour that is displayed by politicians, influencers, journalists and even policy makers – and some academics perhaps as well. In the pursuit of the singular fact in all situations and contexts, the sensational and the unattributed has come to reign supreme.

Universities must seize the initiative and ensure that those pursuing higher education also pursue higher ideals through their courses of study or at least their student charter. I do not necessarily mean a return to the classical notion of an ‘academy’ or the embedded use of the Socratic method of question-answer-debate, in class or online. But what I do mean is that universities should be reaching out and teaching others not only knowledge for its own sake, but how society should learn and make use of that knowledge in a systematic manner. Deepening links with communities they serve through patronage and stewardship of societal challenges such as climate change, health inequalities, jobs, economic regeneration and employment as well as having a greater input to policy formation will start to change things.

In conclusion, let me turn to my current institution’s definition of knowledge.

For several years, the motto at my university has been ‘Making Knowledge Work’. This has been a powerful and unifying statement. There is nothing inherently wrong with this motto and in fact many staff – myself included – continue to use this statement when explaining to students and the wider set of external stakeholders our approach to knowledge and learning.

But I much prefer the heraldic motto in our coat of arms from Shakespeare’s 38th sonnet: ‘Give invention light’. Against the current backdrop of these challenging times in which we are all struggling to swim through – and sometimes against – information and mis-information, of fact and fiction and everything in between I believe that universities should therefore return to their fundamentals: using the conduit of knowledge and the tools of learning to provide a truly, ‘higher’ experience of education, not for the few but for the many.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Making Knowledge Work, Give Invention light and Learning the practice of learning are all objectives for Universities which I would support.

    However, ” ‘higher’ experience of education, not for the few but for the many” is not the right destination for me nor even the most important direction to travel.

    I am more comfortable with Higher Education seeking to better understand our world, the challenges we face “climate change, health inequalities, jobs, economic regeneration and employment ” and providing insight into the action we should take and making the world a better place.

    To misquote “Our objective should be to understand the world and take action to change it and improve it”.

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