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'Catching the knowledge wave?'- review by Brian Opie

Brian Opie
Year published: 

Waving or drowning?

A deep anxiety lies at the centre of policy and planning in New Zealand which the title of Jane Gilbert’s important book captures exactly. Massive cultural, social and economic change, otherwise labelled globalisation, postcolonisation, or postmodernity, has to be managed – but how? In so far as change represents opportunity, especially economic opportunity, how do we know whether we as a nation are on the crest of the wave or in the trough behind? What does education have to do with innovation and creativity, two of the code words of knowledge society discourse?  How could the quality of our knowledge have become a deciding factor? 

Like globalisation, the term “knowledge society” is complex shorthand for fundamental qualitative change in society, of the same order as “industrialisation” 200 years ago. Gilbert’s analysis of the issues now facing education as a critical social institution presents New Zealand education as compromised by a failure to understand what is now at stake.

The main purpose of her book is to explain for a general readership why the present settlement in education is unable to facilitate the transition to the knowledge society, and what new concepts are needed to inform public, official and professional thinking. The purpose of the book is to provide a “coherent framework for putting … ideas together, one that is underpinned by a clear and generally accepted understanding of what we want to achieve.”

The last five words locate both the problem and the need generated by knowledge society policies and programmes. The problem is that the dominant discourse of business and economics would define education as a servant of the economy, and knowledge as the prime material of economic value, displacing the traditional liberal account of education as the principal means to social justice and democratic citizenship. The need, if New Zealand is to retain an effective public education system, is for collective agreement on a new account of the social and personal purposes of education.

Her central argument is that:our education system’s structure, its organising principles, and the assumptions that underlie it are designed to support an industrial age society … This system will not be able to meet the human resource needs of a knowledge-based society, and it will definitely not offer equality of opportunity.

This argument is presented from various perspectives: the main characteristics of the present as the transition phase from modernity to postmodernity; the origins and purposes of the New Zealand education system; new thinking about knowledge and learning; the social and political contexts of education; why knowledge has come into the foreground of thinking about the future of society. Clear assessments of the principal different theoretical approaches to interpreting the period from the 1970s onwards, and the main responses in education, are given. Notable among the latter are her view that learning strategies by themselves cannot provide the answers needed, and that the current emphasis on IT solutions is seriously misplaced, because both are based on a traditional and now mistaken account of the role of knowledge in education.

A somewhat repetitive insistence on the core concepts underlines her view that, unless the importance of these terms is grasped, relevant and purposeful change will not be possible. Readers who want more elaboration are well catered for in the informative notes to each chapter which summarise research conclusions from diverse fields including educational theory, history, sociology, business and organisational studies, cultural and media studies, policy and economics. One irony is that universities, one of the original knowledge organisations and the source of much of this research, seem unaware of its implications for themselves.

This book challenges many current positions, especially the utilitarian model which underpins much knowledge society advocacy and the liberal traditional model appealed to by critics of neo-liberalism. It does this work on a premise which has been lost sight of, that education is a fundamental institution of society, not to be subordinated to more powerful institutions: “Schools are not companies. They are the building blocks of our future society.”  In other words, education is to society as industry and business are to the economy, a view which is equally relevant to tertiary education in its fracture between knowledge creations as research (the industrial model), and as teaching (the school model). Although tertiary education is not her direct focus, Gilbert’s account of knowing as a mode of active engagement, and her emphasis on “multi-modal” technologies, critical literacy and “difference, diversity, and plurality” together also challenge the premises on which New Zealand tertiary education is conducted. In particular, the argument that “in a world increasingly shaped by global influences, the production, accumulation and dissemination of local knowledge will be very important. If people are to make sense of and act on these global influences, they first need to know a lot about themselves” opens out onto the relations between social scientific and humanities modes of knowing and their contributions to innovation.

Throughout, the analysis of New Zealand education tracks the in-built tension between its disciplinary and carceral role, fitting people for the current dominant conception of what being a good citizen and worker means and, if necessary, policing their behaviour, and its liberatory role, assisting people to discover what is distinctive about themselves and to encourage informed participation in a democratic society. In her account of the meaning and origin of the term “knowledge society”, Jane Gilbert identifies it with capitalist conceptions of society and what she describes as the new high status occupations, “the financial, investment and IT sectors”. She provides a succinct and pointed summary of the business metaphors by which these conceptions of society are translated into education, an account which she consistently challenges while accepting that real change in the forms and status of employment require real change in the content and form of education.

There are instances where the distinction between critique and adoption of concepts is not so clear. For example, social cohesion and cultural identity are fundamental terms in the lexicon of free-market economics and the risk society. In these conceptions, strong cultural identities and communities compensate for the socially destabilising forces of the competitive free market. These conservative conceptions of social and cultural values do not seem to me to fit well with a revised social democratic basis for a public education system which Gilbert locates in the phrase “being equal and different”.

Readers coming to the book with a professional interest in education will find the last chapter particularly rewarding. It is here that Gilbert’s incisive analysis of specific educational issues is given room, and the points she makes, especially through her reframing of the current account of girls’ academic achievement, serve as powerful examples of her larger argument. Her long experience as a teacher (secondary and tertiary) and researcher in education prevents her from assuming that deliberate and consensual change is easily achievable, but her book affirms throughout that new thinking and new practices in education are necessary if New Zealand is to be able to determine its future direction as a nation: “there are … no models or templates which we can simply pick up and adopt … We need to develop our own local, highly specific responses to the issues and challenges raised by knowledge-society developments elsewhere in the world.”

Brian Opie teaches in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies, Victoria University of Wellington and is executive director of Te Whainga Aronui The Council for the Humanities.

This review has been reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of
New Zealand Books, 16 (2) (Issue Seventy-Three) June 2006, pp20-21.