Thursday, September 15, 2011

Insist on Knowing

Last week I spoke at the release of Embedded, which is a student-run journal that has just been started here at the Copenhagen Business School. I began by quoting Ezra Pound in his ABC of Reading: "Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding." (84) It is encouraging, I told them, in a time when too many students expect to be herded into their qualifications, and too many educators are willing to satisfy those expectations, to see students themselves asserting the value of knowledge. This is not a student magazine, after all, but an academic journal run by students. It is a manifestation of people who insist on knowing.

We aren't able to limit education in general to such people, but we might say that they are the only ones who are using their time at university to really get an education. Students who don't insist on knowing are not really learning. They are exposing themselves to the influence, not of knowledge, but of power. They are not building their understanding but shaping their obedience; they are being sheep-herded into a convenient set of truths, an ideology. I will grant that, for many of these students, this "truth" is, in a brute, materialistic kind of way, even a convenience to themselves.

Sometimes the production of this convenient truth travels under the banner of "engaged scholarship". This is the process by which scholars seek out ways of making their knowledge "relevant" to practitioners. If they insist too strongly on what they know, their perceived relevance will be at risk. That is why we need the relative luxury, the freedom from worry, of the university, or "academe". It gives us the means to entertain inconvenient notions.

Insistence is an interesting intellectual stance. It is something quite different than being curious or open-minded. And it takes a certain amount of strength. That strength should be manifest in your writing. In fact, insisting on knowing is precisely what academic writing is for. Popular writing does not give you, or your reader, an opportunity to insist on anything; it is intended to be believed in so far as it is understood. Academic writing, because it is written by knowledgeable people for other knowledgeable people, i.e., people who might challenge them about the truth of their claims, is a site of Pound's "real education". It is where learning takes place.


Andrew Shields said...

From a teacher's perspective, then, there are the students who insist on knowing, and there are those who don't.

Beyond all the other questions this distinction raises, one leaps out at me: is it possible to turn the latter into the former? Can I turn students who do not insist on knowing into students that do?

Thomas said...

Many people don't insist because they can't. I think you can help them.

There may be a fundamental distinction between people who want to understand and people who want to obey, though. (Some basic different in human character, if you will.) You can't teach someone who just wants to know "the right answer" how to insist on knowing.

But you can teach someone who wants to understand how to insist—how to stand their ground rhetorically long enough for the arguments to have their force.

As far as that "teacher's perspective", I agree. And I think it's important precisely, as Pound argues, to limits one's pedagogical energies to those who do. (To aim one's teaching there.) I'm grateful for your very useful qualification that one is also trying to reach those that want to, but are unable to.