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Certain Knowledge and the Conventional University


March 3, 2000: This message was distributed by Papyrus News, a free e-mail distribution list on the global impact of information technology on language, literacy, and education. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For information on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <>.



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The excerpt below is from a very interesting paper, "UTS, A Real University," by Professor Chris Drane of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. The paper offers a broad perspective on the issues facing the conventional university. The excerpt focuses on the contemporary university's obsession with "certain" knowledge and the subsequent failure to prepare graduates to deal with the uncertain knowledge they encounter in their every-day lives. The entire paper can be found at: <>


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academy

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Chris Drane, Professor
Faculty of Engineering
University of Technology
Sydney, Australia


Let me start with the aspects of the ethos that are not manipulated by the system. Most academics appear to have a strong desire to understand. Furthermore, most have a desire to impart this understanding to others. As well, there seems to be a general wish to make society better - including a recognition of the importance of compassion. These three desires form the foundation of the university. Taken unalloyed with other motives, they can produce academics who spend a lifetime reflecting upon themselves, society, and the natural world. These academics will develop understanding in a particular discipline but will also have many questions and insights on all aspects of human existence. They will also have a strong desire to impart these insights along with discipline knowledge to their students. Unfortunately the conventional university does not encourage the development of this sort of academic. Instead, academics are driven to narrow specialisation. This drive comes from other motivations including a desire for fame, a desire to appear clever, and a desire for certain knowledge. The problem is not that academics have such desires. The problem is that the conventional university exploits1 academics by encouraging them to pursue these desires to the exclusion of all else.



Consider the desire for certain knowledge. As claimed earlier, there is within most academics a desire for understanding. Unfortunately, in a modern university this is directed towards gaining certainty. This can be the precision of modern physics or the empty conviction of the philosophical relativist. The following quote from Neils Bohr vividly demonstrates the difference between certain and uncertain knowledge: "There are two kinds of ideas in our universe and they are represented by two kinds of statements: those whose opposites are obviously false and those whose opposites are obviously true. The first form the basis of most publications and are intrinsically unimportant. The second can point to truth and must be cherished." This quotation demonstrates why academics are so concerned with certain knowledge: it is publishable. It also raises an important question for the university: what truths do we cherish?

The difficulty with certain knowledge is that most of the important aspects of life cannot be dealt with by certain knowledge. What do I really want to do? What is that other person thinking? What is the best form of society? What gives meaning to my life? How should one counsel an employee? Life is full of such questions that can be only answered by embracing a much wider framework of reasoning than is encompassed by the realm of certain knowledge. The vital point here is that by not preparing students to deal with uncertain knowledge we limit their development and so impoverish them as human beings and citizens.

The emphasis on certain knowledge does not even prepare students properly for the work force. Success in business depends much more on manipulating uncertain knowledge than any exact skill we can impart. As well, in the information age, any form of certain knowledge that is used in the work force will eventually be encapsulated in a computer program. Accordingly the most successful graduates are the ones that can deal with uncertain knowledge. Even when we do realise the need to teach uncertain knowledge - this is often done in the context of certain knowledge; as a subject listing "proven" methods to improve communication skills.

The obsession with certain knowledge also affects the workings of the conventional university. It creates an environment that is rule driven, because this seems to provide certain knowledge. It has also created an environment where it is impossible to make ethical judgements beyond a narrowly defined area of "good" behaviour.

These three unbridled desires - to achieve fame, to appear clever, and to construct certain knowledge - contribute to the specialisation of the modern university. It is very difficult to obtain certain results about a large field of endeavour. It is much easier to poke some bricks out of the wall of knowledge and build a new compartment. Indeed, it appears there are endless possibilities for such extensions, including finding narrow niches in interdisciplinary studies. Many of these new extensions are trivial and useless, but the university has no way of judging what is trivial and what is useless. So as long as the new compartment can support journals, conferences, and eventually a learned society, it can become a new room for academics to decorate with their rigorous speculations. Even more seriously, the university has lost the capability to judge whether a piece of research is of benefit to society. We no longer share religious or even humanist convictions. We have no common basis on which to make moral judgements, so the university has no way to evaluate the societal benefit of research. Indeed, unless the research involves a particularly controversial area, the modern university makes no serious attempt to make any evaluation, apart from box ticking.


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Last updated: March 5, 2000