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Experts, knowledge and criticality in the age of ‘alternative facts’: re-examining the contribution of higher education

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by Neil Harrison

Higher education is in danger of sleepwalking into a crisis. There is a growing assault on the very idea of expertise and on the experts that hold it. As educators, we need to respond decisively or risk a slow drift into irrelevance.

The starting points for this post need little rehearsal. The digital revolution has put potentially limitless information at the fingertips of most of world at little or no cost. Social media have opened up new lines of communication that enable individuals to reach unmediated audiences that would not have been possible even ten years ago. However, these affordances do not have an inherently benign role in society and, indeed, they have been implicated as harbingers of ‘post-truthism’ – the idea that we are living in a world in which truth matters less than belief, identity or popularity, and where the powerful introduce false ‘alternative facts’ to manipulate what becomes true.

This assault is pernicious to the role of higher education in society, with its long-established position as a producer and reproducer of knowledge – through research and teaching respectively. Higher education, as a sector, has arguably been slow to respond to the new circumstances. Rather, it has concerned itself increasingly with how its expertise (and experts) can be packaged and repackaged for market advantage, particularly on the global stage. The very idea of a self-regulating community of scholars is under threat.

This post is the first in a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

In this short introductory piece, I would like to draw particular attention to three elements that are touched upon by all of the authors to a greater or lesser extent. I see these as the seeds of a solution to the situation in which higher education finds itself, as well as a live call to action for my colleagues across the sector:

  • We need to better prepare students for an information-complex world. With the decline in traditional forms of cognitive authority and an increasing clamour of rival voices seeking legitimacy, higher education needs to consider how to support students develop their own criteria for finding, assessing and critiquing information. This needs to reach beyond a lazy reinforcement of their existing worldviews (or, indeed, those of educators) to understand multiple perspectives and how to navigate conflicting truth claims. A stronger induction into the world of knowledge creation through primary research is also vital to enabling students to critique the claims made by others.
  • We need to reoccupy public spaces and reassert our expertise. There is, perhaps inevitably, a tacit pressure on experts to disengage from debate with those who do not respect the accumulated expertise that they embody. Why would someone want to spend valuable time that could be spent on developing further expertise in dialogue with those seeking to undermine their authority from a position of relative ignorance? Of course, social media has exponentially increased the capacity for experts and non-experts to come into direct contact. However, this impulse to disengage must be resisted, with educators needing to reassert their expertise in public forums like Twitter to avoid the further erosion of higher education’s role as a community of experts. Our younger colleagues tend to understand this better than some of us older hands.
  • We need to reach out through a new pragmatic interdisciplinarity. One feature of 20th century scholarship was the steady march of disciplinary identity, with increasingly complex knowledge inexorably leading to greater specialisation and the reification of expertise. Walls have gone up between disciplines, as well as between fields and ontological traditions within the disciplines. This has had the effect of making higher education seem remote and irrelevant – a new ivory cladding for the old towers. Relevance can only be rediscovered by finding new ways of working together to reapply our expertise to the world’s wicked problems.

I hope that you enjoy the forthcoming series of blog posts and that they lead you to find out more from the full papers in the special issue. Also, several of the papers will be presented at an event organised by the SRHE’s Academic Practice Network on 3rd April – you can find more details and sign-up for a place on the SRHE website.

SRHE Council member Neil Harrison is Deputy Director of the Rees Centre in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford.

You can find Neil’s full article (“Experts, knowledge and criticality in the age of ‘alternative facts’: re-examining the contribution of higher education”) here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1544552

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

3 thoughts on “Experts, knowledge and criticality in the age of ‘alternative facts’: re-examining the contribution of higher education

  1. Neil, I go along entirely with the points you make in your blog, but let me pursue your argument under your heading of “reoccupy[ing] public spaces and reassert[ing] our expertise”. I touched on this point in a SRHE blog myself a while back. What you don’t mention is that your aim (which I share) implies political engagement: we are talking about telling politicians that they are wrong – not balance-of-argument, two-schools-of-thought type points, but telling them that they are just plain wrong! How many university managements will support their academics in a showdown with a government minister in these circumstances? I wouldn’t bet my pension on it – would you?

    Regards

    Paul

    • It would certainly redefine ‘impact’! I think this is a real challenge for ideas about speaking truth to power. Your point is a good one – maybe we need, as a profession, to have a conversation about the limits to intellectual freedom of expression, particularly in a market system where ‘brand’ and ‘reputation’ have monetary values.

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