University Design: The Ends of Knowledge By David J. Staley

Seth Rudy and Rachael Scarborough King, eds. The Ends of Knowledge: Outcomes and Endpoints Across the Arts and Sciences (London: Bloomsbury Academic,2023).

One segment of Marc Andreesen’s recently uploaded “Techno-Optimist Manifesto” caught my attention: 

“Our enemy is the ivory tower, the know-it-all credentialed expert worldview, indulging in abstract theories, luxury beliefs, social engineering, disconnected from the real world, delusional, unelected, and unaccountable.” []

I have a feeling that that term, “luxury beliefs,” will soon be heard on the lips of not only tech billionaires and their imitators, but by university presidents and provosts in their justifications for cutting academic programs.  I have written before about the phenomenon I’ve labeled “epistemological culling,” [] where financially struggling institutions decide to eliminate certain majors in order to trim budgets.  The programs cut are almost inevitably from the arts and sciences.  Very soon, I suspect we will hear yet another university president say that their institutions can no longer support “luxury beliefs” such as history, philosophy, gender studies and other such “abstract theories.” 

Seth Rudy and Rachael Scarborough King observe that in the current environment, one where “humanities scholars, social scientists, and natural scientists [are] all forced to defend their work, from accusations of the ‘hoax’ of climate change to assumptions of the ‘usefulness’ of a humanities degree, knowledge producers within and without the academy are challenged to articulate why they do what they do…” (1)  Articulating the purpose of our disciplines—what they mean by “end,” of course–would have to be done not only for the purpose of marketing classes and majors to students or forestalling skeptics such as state legislators.  Declaring the end to disciplinary knowledge would have to extend beyond a “learning outcomes” statement on a syllabus: the ends of knowledge must define how that discipline is taught, how classes are designed, and how students are credentialed.    

Rudy and King argue that the ends of knowledge in the arts and sciences are nowadays being defined by everyone other than academic practitioners.  “We believe,” they write, that “the time has come again for knowledge producers across fields to reorient their work around the question of ‘ends.’ This need not mean acquiescence to either the logics of economic utilitarianism or partisan fealty that have already proved so damaging to twenty-first-century institutions.  The continued, cynical narrowing of ‘usefulness’ to mean profitable instrumentalization or advancing outside interests is the end of knowledge we all face in the absence of clearer (even if continually and publicly contested) alternatives.  But while many scholars are constitutionally resistant to this kind of thinking, as we resist the concept of ends our end is being defined for us.” (3)  [emphasis added]

For many students, employers and legislators, skills have eclipsed knowledge as the end of a particular discipline. If the skills imparted do not seem employable—or, indeed, if a discipline does not seem to offer any economically useful skills training at all—then this might be why they appear to be “luxuries.”  One is reminded of the time California governor Ronald Reagan, when planning to overhaul the University of California system in 1967, quipped that “we do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.”   Reagan said that taxpayers should not be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” [ ] Reagan would be quite at home in today’s epistemological environment.  

The editors group the ends of knowledge into four categories.  First is unification, meaning the development of a unified theory or explanation for everything, as physics has long sought to achieve.  The second is access, “and that such access is key to social justice.” (11) Third is utopia, where the ends of knowledge seek to achieve utopian outcomes.  For example, working to “instill ethical governance into artificial intelligence systems” would be a utopian achievement.  “The end of gender studies…could be seen in utopian terms: as the end of gendered oppression.” (12) The final category is concepts, in which “the knowledge work of a discipline relates most directly to the creation and clarification of a key concept.” (13) The end of performance studies, for example, might be understood as “an exploration of liveness,” that quality of being situated in time and space.  

Whatever the outcome, whatever the end, disciplines that can best articulate the meaning and purpose of the knowledge they create will be the ones that will have the best chance at surviving this period of epistemological culling.  Rather than acting as if such knowledge is self-evidently valuable, disciplines across the arts and sciences will need to not only articulate their ends but make these a transparent part of any course or curricula they might practice.  

In urging academics to think in terms of ends, this collection of essays should be read as a defense of knowledge against those I will identify as episteclasts, destroyers of knowledge.  

David J. Staley is a higher education philosopher, strategist, futurist and designer, and is an Honorary Faculty Fellow in Innovation at CHELIP.  He is the author of Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education and the co-author of Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets.

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