When we met last Monday (April 11, 2011) for the mini-conference on the future of assessment, we, of course, talked a lot about the impact of the new technologies. Without much prodding from Robbie McClintock we mentioned the oft celebrated opening of access to knowledge as well as the distribution of the production of widely accessible knowledge. The new technologies open routes to knowledge that do not pass through the gate-keepers we are familiar with: universities, research libraries, newspapers, state-controlled curricula, medical institutions (not to mention the theologians and priests who, until recently appeared to be fading as gate-keepers).
Someone then mentioned that all this has a very dark side. With the distribution of access and production comes a distribution of the authority to interpret and constitute knowledge so that it can guide practical action in the world. This can be scary.
In brief, everyone, about, can read Wikipedia (and other sources available on the Web). But Wikipedia writers cannot assess what people are doing with the reading, whether in real time or, in a posteriori tests. Readers may learn, as individuals. More significantly for us, they may then act publicly and practically. Disagreeing with Darwin for religious reasons is one thing. Building a “Creation Museum” is something else together (not to mention trying to enter creationism into the public school curriculum). Doubting the efficacy of vaccines is one thing, not getting a child vaccinated is another one.
Can “democracy”—as Dewey might have meant it when he titled a book “Democracy and Education” (1916)—survive the full democratization of knowledge? This, of course, is an old problem.
I will stay with the technical issues and keep the implications for political philosophy implicit. The issue we must raise concerns the interpretation of two sets of now common observations about the entry of the new technologies into public common practices.
On the one hand there is the evidence for the power of crowd sourcing to establish, through communal self-correction, what is, for an intent, purpose, and polity, expert knowledge. Much of Wikipedia fits here and there are reports that many fields are using crowd-sourcing for scientific purposes in the modernist sense. McClintock’s own experiment with StudyPlace is a valiant attempt to use wiki software for more than the writing of encyclopedias.
On the other hand there is also evidence for the power of any number of other self-constituting polities to constitute, propose, defend, etc., forms of knowledge that other polities—says academics—will characterize as erroneous. Post-modernists, critical theorists, performance artists may celebrate this anarchic blooming but the flowers of such blooming can be toxic.
In both cases one has “education” in my sense of “difficult collective deliberations” (2007) particularly as the various polities discuss and address each other. In both cases one has evidence for collective ongoing “assessments” of earlier statements (Andrews 2010) by people who specifically claim some expertise, or who just proceed as if the assessment had been made by an expert. And both cases leave state-regulated or controlled “public” schools in a difficult position. For a century or two school people have been charged with developing knowledge (in research universities for example), deciding which subset of this knowledge is appropriate for what kinds of publics (through the setting of curricula), experimenting with methods (pedagogies) to impart this knowledge. They have also been charged with vouching that particularly populations have incorporated this knowledge—through achievement tests for example. In this arc of knowledge (re-)production, alternate forms of knowledge were either specifically discounted (“grand-mothers’ knowledge”) or just ignored.
For at least half-a-century, critics have protested this arc but they did it mostly from the safety of various ivory-towers (think Bourdieu blasting La Sorbonne from his post at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales). They rarely had to deal with the practical consequences of direct attack on academic expertise from putative experts who now have the tools to be heard. It is only recently that the population at large has had the technological means to make fully public these alternate forms of knowledge. It may be that finally, post-modernism is being institutionalized.
And so, those of us, particularly in anthropology, who see merit in the argument that constituted knowledge is founded on arbitrary institutional (political) means must confront the consequences of the mass distribution of constitutive tools, and thus the appearance of new forms of arbitrary political power (in all the sense of “arbitrary”—the political as well as the semiotic).
In a future that may already be here, schools may become irrelevant as producers, transmitters, or assessors of knowledge—though they could remain as essential baby sitting institutions, and as gate-keepers into the service industries. This future may be wonderful, or awful. Stressing the reality that the web makes public all knowledge and frees inquiry from the mediation of the institutions that limited access, can turn into technological utopia. Stressing the reality that unmediated information can lead to all forms of altogether dangerous knowledge, can turn into technological dystopia. It is probable that the 21st century will be a time when the classic debates about letting the Christian faithful read the Bible will be reprised (and will not, one hopes, lead to the kind of violence Europe experienced in the 16th century).