Op-eds | November 15, 2013

Who controls knowledge?

by Trevor Harrison

Since last spring’s budget, which saw cuts across Alberta’s post-secondary institutions of more than seven per cent (on top of a two-per-cent cut in already promised money), the province’s universities and colleges have been in panic mode.

The panic isn’t only about funding. The angst stems more particularly from the repeated statements of Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, who is also deputy premier, suggesting the government views post-secondary institutions as little more than training centres or commercial enterprises. His statements are viewed by some critics as a threat to academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Alberta, however, is not alone in its views of post-secondary institutions. The Harper government has made similar statements, emphasizing an alleged “mismatch” between the labour market skills required in Canada’s increasingly resource-based economy and the education received by recent graduates.

Editorialists and business lobbyists have joined in attacking the value of arts degrees, in particular, though not without significant pushback from many educators who hold a broader view of the value of education.

While some may view these debates as only about labour market training and the tax dollars to pay for it, the issues in fact involve much larger questions concerning the ownership, control and meaning of knowledge in society and its relationship to citizenship and democracy.

A short history lesson is instructive here.

After the Second World War, social theorists coined the term the “knowledge society” to describe one in which educated individuals collectively produced wealth and participated widely — that is, democratically — in political decision-making.

The emergent post-industrial society, it was argued, would be based on knowledge production. Soon, knowledge was joined by the notion of education as a social — indeed, a citizenship — right, not to mention a means of middle-class advancement.

Quickly, however, these ideas came under attack. Small and large “c” conservatives objected to the costs of mass education. But they also argued if a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of it is doubly so. Knowledge, widely disseminated, can be a great leveller of power.

Thus in the mid-1970s, conservative elites began complaining about an “excess of democracy” resulting from an increasingly educated populace, making governance more difficult.

The solution was obvious: greater state control over knowledge and its diminutive sidekick, information. Controlling, manipulating and suppressing information became a chief preoccupation of the emerging corporate state.

Along the way, the concept of knowledge as a public good also came under attack. Gradually, public funding for education in Alberta and elsewhere was reduced. This funding gap was quickly filled by corporate interests, who wanted control over higher education, and by students, who saw their tuitions rise.

The knowledge society morphed into the knowledge economy; only knowledge that advanced the interests of the growing corporate state was valued, while education itself became an investment opportunity — the view espoused by the current Alberta government.

In time, another transformation took place. Where knowledge (itself, a necessary but insufficient basis for wisdom) had been reduced to information, information became, in the computer age, “byte-sized” into “data”; or, to use another term, “stuff” often devoid of any larger sense of meaning.

Today, the folding, spindling and mutilation of data is an industry unto itself, as witness the endless parade of market numbers purporting to say everything, even as they say nothing, about the real economy. Likewise, the proliferation of surveys designed to slice and dice the population into its component parts, the better to be controlled and manipulated.

But while the corporate state increasingly knows much about all of us, we seem to know less and less about the actions of the corporate state.

Sometimes, however, state secrets do leak out — revelations regarding the Communications Security Establishment Canada’s economic espionage in Brazil being a recent example — to which governments have responded in two ways. The first is to double-down on the technological and administrative walls around information. The second is to muzzle and prosecute those who penetrate those walls.

These efforts have often failed, however: the first because of the cost involved and because every system, no matter how elaborate, has its weaknesses; the second because going after individuals often creates martyrs to truth, while leaving the prosecutors looking darkly authoritarian.

Across Canada, scientists have protested efforts to silence them; whistleblowers, though woefully unprotected, have revealed the secrets that states and corporations would prefer remain hidden; and students, through letters, protests and the ballot box, have continued to demand an education that will lead to their full development as creative human beings rather than as mere replacement parts for the economy.

These efforts speak to the fact that knowledge and education belong to all of us. They are part of our common heritage, and the real stuff of which thriving democracies are made.

Trevor W. Harrison is director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-based think-tank.


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