Who owns knowledge?

Last Thursday on campus here at William Paterson, we led off with the 37th year of the Distinguished Lecturer Series. Lesley Stahl, longtime CBS reporter and 60 Minutes  anchor and editor, spoke to about 500 people in Shea Auditorium. Along with stories about politics, politicians and other people she had met in her career, Stahl talked a little bit about changes in the media and changes in politics. As she noted (and others have as well), the 2016 Presidential Election and Campaign seems to be throwing out all the old rules–experience and inside knowledge are out; in its place are candidates who are running against rather than running for, it seems. They seem to be political contemporaries of the Marlon Brando character in The Wild One: “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against? Whadda you got?”

In discussing this, Stahl used the phrase “crisis of institutional legitimacy.” This is not a new phrase or new idea, but it is an idea that seems to have come around once more.

The concept, that institutions, individuals and functions, in which we used to place trust and legitimacy, are no longer trusted is a concept generally attributed to the German scholar Jurgen Habermas (yes, even rhetoricians, at least those trained at the University of Iowa in the early 1990s, read Habermas), though the idea itself has a long history.

In Stahl’s phrasing, the 2016 presidential campaign seems to be demonstrating the loss of the legitimacy of the political party–the role that the party played in selecting, grooming and then anointing candidates. She attributed this loss to the rise of the Internet and the loss of institutional control. Those of us in the communication field see this as a broader trend–the ongoing shift from a mass communication model where powerful central bodies (networks, newspapers, advertisers, etc) control the content and flow of messages, to a more decentralized model–anyone with a cell phone and connection to the Internet is now a producer of communication, not just a consumer.

Ok–so what is the connection to education and the title of this post?

Take this concept to the classroom. The standard model of education for centuries has been a model of information transmission. Teachers have the knowledge and that knowledge is passed on to the student (and yes, there are many other models and many other ways education takes place, but information transmission is the dominant model). As well: One of the primary functions that educational institutions perform is to legitimize and credential students.

So: We have an educational model that still prioritizes central control of knowledge, and an institution that has a primary function of legitimizing that knowledge transfer, both operating at a time when technology provides access to more (and more current) information than ever before, and society is increasingly questioning the legitimacy of higher education.

While it is trendy (to the point that the backlash has gained force) to talk about disruptions in higher education, I would suggest that the question about who owns knowledge and the issue of the legitimacy of the higher education institution is not just a trend, but a topic worthy of serious thought (more than in a blog posting). What we do and how we do it–I do think change is a coming. The disruption backlash is growing in strength, but so is the role and power of open communication and technology, and I would hate to think that much of higher education will go the way of Blockbuster (wiped out by Netflix), Borders (and I wouldn’t be in for the long investment in Barnes and Nobles–one gone and the other going thanks to Amazon), multiple daily newspapers, network TV (still a power, but fading), and the nightly newscast. It is always easier to see the change in the rear view mirror, but we do seem to be living in a time when the rules are changing.

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