Knowledge is tricky to define – and even harder to measure

The world is impatient for the academy’s social benefits, writes Lisa Anderson, but its core mission remains a slow-flowering one

January 28, 2016
Nate Kitch illustration (28 January 2016)
Source: Nate Kitch

Across the globe, there is a strong correlation between a successful higher education sector and economic development, international power and cultural influence.

The case for investment in higher education is based on these associations – not least in the Middle East, where governments aspiring to prosperity and influence have invested substantial resources in expanding university enrolments by nearly 50 per cent over the past 10 years, and are likely to do so again in the coming decade.

Universities everywhere advertise the employment rates of their graduate cohort. Industry invests in university-based research that spins off potentially profitable applications. Communities hanker after the employment and cultural and sporting amenities that universities provide. And governments seek greater equality by funding widening access for qualified students, and pursue other public policy goals, such as national security or environmental stability, by subsidising university research in such fields.

But while such social goods are unquestionably desirable, universities are not actually designed to deliver any of them. And while they would be foolish to forgo credit for these contributions, making such claims risks their being taken for something they are not, and being held accountable for outcomes they cannot guarantee.

University mission statements vary, but they all embrace in some form the tripartite purpose affirmed by Yale University: “to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge”. “Knowledge” is notoriously tricky to define, despite the fact that we routinely attest to its importance to today’s “knowledge economy” – and what we have difficulty defining, we have even more trouble measuring. Yet all good universities see their responsibility, as the California Institute of Technology puts it, “to expand human knowledge”. The University of Oxford fosters “a culture [of] innovation”. Stanford University aims at “the cultivation and enlargement of the mind”, while the University of Cambridge aspires to nourish “a questioning spirit”.

Given how hard it is to actually nourish a questioning spirit, it is hardly surprising that most efforts to assess the value of higher education centre on universities’ own claims that all of this will have a public benefit. Caltech will “benefit society”, Oxford expects to “benefit society on a national and a global scale”, Stanford aims to “promote the public welfare” and Cambridge will “contribute to society”.

But what if the relationship between the cause – knowledge creation – and the effect – social benefit – is uncertain, indirect, certainly not immediate, and not always easily apparent?

In much of the world today, most universities are public or for-profit institutions; in the Middle East and North Africa, a third of all universities are now privately owned. Hence, they answer to governments or to owners who are impatient at best, intolerant at worst. Indeed, nearly all funders of education and research today – from private foundations to tuition-paying families – want to see a quick and tangible return on their investment. A research discovery that is brought swiftly to market; a scholarly article that wins an award, garners citations or generates website traffic; a graduate-level job that pays well: these are the visible, measurable tokens of success. They are indeed all indicators, albeit indirectly, of the creation, preservation and dissemination of knowledge. But the measures are not exactly the same as the mission: much basic research takes decades before it has practical application; scholarly and scientific work sometimes languishes unheralded because it is ahead of its time; some graduates hit their professional stride years after they leave the university.

And, perhaps more importantly, what of that questioning spirit? Much is made of the importance of critical thinking in a good education, and it is true that disciplined thinking that is clear, unbiased and informed by evidence forms the basis of much creativity and innovation. But as anyone who has ever taught it can attest, the flowering of such thinking can be a trial. A questioning spirit is intrinsically anti-authoritarian, even subversive, yet few people in authority – whether teachers, senior research scientists, university officials or government leaders – aspire to be questioned or criticised. What indicators might measure the culture of self-restraint, patience and tolerance in which new ideas develop, self-confident citizens are made and, ultimately, societies actually do progress?

For now, it is a good start to measure what we can. Universities claim to be of benefit to their communities, nations and, increasingly these days, the world. Let them be held to these claims. Let us assume, as the universities themselves do, that measures such as graduate employment, publication citations, student diversity and extramural research support are indicators of the excellence of the underlying culture of enquiry. But let us also remember that these effects are just the ancillary benefits – intended and welcomed, to be sure – of universities’ primary purpose to create, preserve and disseminate knowledge. If we forget this, and we forget the forbearance this mission requires, we risk abandoning our essential mission in the race to meet the demands for social benefit. Ultimately, we will fail at both.

Lisa Anderson is the former president of the American University in Cairo, and one of the keynote speakers at Times Higher Education’s 2016 MENA Summit at United Arab Emirates University from 2 to 4 February.


Print headline: It’s hard to nourish a questioning spirit, and harder to measure it

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