Knowledge Power: Interdisciplinary Education for a Complex World

September 9, 2010

In 2008 Cisco, one of the world's biggest technology corporations, commissioned from Metiri, an educational consulting firm specialising in educational technology policy, a "white paper on equipping every learner for the 21st century". Alan Wilson was one of the expert reviewers of that report, and he acknowledges it as one of the platforms upon which he has built the ideas contained in this book.

On first encountering Knowledge Power, one feels rather as if one were experiencing death by 1,000 PowerPoint slides. On first reading, it leaves one gasping for breath - and grasping for the lifeline of an argument. The book's style and structure are such that the linkage is loose, the exposition highly abbreviated, and the syntax staccato and exclamatory. (I have rarely read a text with so many exclamation marks.) One longs for the PowerPoint presentations to end and a more reflective and authoritative voice to emerge - the voice, that is, of its eminent author.

Knowledge Power is based on the questionable but unquestioned assumption that "we live at the centre of a knowledge explosion" and that "knowledge is now the key capital resource": hence, the conjunction of "knowledge" and "power" in the book's title. The key question, for Wilson, is how to maximise that resource by remapping what he calls "the knowledge space". That space, he argues, is filled with "abstract and enabling disciplines", "the big systems" (which include "the core disciplines") and "disciplines defined by profession". The challenge, as he sees it, is to develop a 21st-century curriculum through new forms of interdisciplinary practice that identify "requisite knowledge".

Those new forms, he goes on to argue, will require a radical reconceptualisation of "the big systems" and the identification of what he terms "superconcepts". The latter are the underlying codes - or core constitutive elements - of "knowledge power". These "superconcepts" are identified and explained as the argument of the book unfolds and are usefully summarised in an appendix. There are 103 of them, beginning alphabetically with "accountability" and ending with "wikis and multidimensional classification".

Superconcept nine, for example, is "the consensus theory of truth", according to which "truth is derived by consensus". Wilson draws on a brief reference to Jürgen Habermas in support of this truth claim - forgetting, perhaps, that what preoccupied and continues to preoccupy Habermas is the question of what democratic conditions are necessary for that claim to be upheld. Consensus is neither good nor bad - it is the conditions under which consensus is achieved that distinguish deliberative democracy from autocracy.

The arts and humanities receive short shrift in the new "knowledge space" of Wilson's interdisciplinary landscape. It would seem they "have a problem with visibility" and show "a strong trend towards isolation" and are "not always sufficiently protected from fashionable trends". The humanities, he insists, must "do their homework" if they are to enter "the doors of a European research council" with, as he puts it, "their academic heads held high". They display an "unfortunate love of their idealistic origins", are unclear as to their relationship to the natural and social sciences, and "are becoming increasingly undefinable".

The italics and exclamation marks feel like the prose equivalent of raised voices. Perhaps Wilson feels he has a lot to raise his voice about. Yet one of his best sentences is one of his simplest and least strained (no italics, no exclamation marks!): "the heart of the argument lies in the curriculum". It is precisely the heart of the argument that is missing from this well-intentioned but hastily produced book.

Knowledge Power: Interdisciplinary Education for a Complex World

By Alan Wilson. Routledge, 174pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780415553117. Published 14 February 2010

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