Committed knowledge: The modern past

Some kinds of knowledge come with a strong commitment to the superiority of their methods and the truthfulness of their representations. They seem certain that their particular way of knowing the world is best, or at least better than other ways of knowing the world. Whether by implication or explicitly, the proponents of commit- ted knowledge frameworks tend to say, ‘I am right and you are wrong about this or that, because my way of knowing the world is more powerful than yours.’ The origins of some committed ways of knowing can be traced back for millennia. However, the range of forms of committed knowledge we have today have taken shape since the beginnings of modernity 500 years ago.

Dimension 1: Ways of knowing

Here are a few examples of the committed knowledge frameworks we find at work in today’s modern societies.

Religious truths

Religion is knowledge that is built around the idea that there is a supreme power – a God or group of gods – who created the world and invisibly govern its course. Religions claim to provide definitive answers to fundamental questions of existence. They explain the source of life and what happens to a person when they die. They also offer rules for good and moral behaviour. Religions rely on a strong and singular idea of truth. There is one truth. This truth has been handed down to the community of believers by a supernatural being. It is a truth that is absolute and its laws have to be obeyed by all followers.

Since the invention of writing, religious knowledge has been recorded in sacred texts, such as the Torah, The Holy Bible, the Koran, various Buddhist texts, Hindu texts and the writings of many other prophets, old and new. The truths of each religion are revealed through its holy texts. These texts are authoritative – to be learned, believed without question and obeyed. Religious truths are absolute and non-negotiable. There can be no errors or contradictions in religious texts.

See The Buddha on enlightenment

See Al-Ghazzali on the Sources of Knowledge.

Sacred texts tell stories of godly people or prophets, some of whom may be historical and others who may be mythical. Religious knowledge requires an acceptance of the truths told in the text even when they describe things beyond ordinary experience and stretching everyday belief. Before mass literacy, people who were not able to read sacred texts relied on priests or religious people as divine intermediaries and teachers. Even when mass literacy came, the sacred texts often remained in languages that were impossible or difficult for believers to access. The Koran was written in classical Arabic and The Holy Bible in Latin for Roman Catholics. Even after being translated into vernacular languages, the texts are still at times obscure, difficult and seemingly inconsistent. They require officially ordained holy men to interpret them – priests, or imams, or monks. As interlocutors between God and humans on fundamental matters of life and death, religious hierarchies assume a powerful social position. They perform an educational role as purveyors of religious truth.

Consistent with an absolutist notion of truth, most religious believers regard non-religious points of view as fundamentally flawed. Believers may choose to try to convince non-believers of the errors of their ways. Or they leave others alone in an ignorance that provides none of the benefits of belief.

See 9/11 at Eternal Grace School.

Empirical truths

Empiricism is a way of knowing that sets out to understand the world through systematic observation and scientific experimentation. In their most committed moments, empiricists reject religious revelation as an invalid source of knowledge. How can you believe in life after death, an empiricist might ask, without empirical evidence to back up the claim?

Empiricists claim that we learn about the world ‘out there’ through our senses. When we are born, our minds are blank. We learn all that we eventually come to know by absorbing the outside world through experience. The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke is perhaps the most famous representative of this view (Locke 1690). In the lifeworld, this learning happens in a natural kind of way, in the form of the experiences a person happens to encounter as a part of their growing up and then living an adult life.

See John Locke on Human Understanding.

Figure 7.2: John Locke, 1632–1704

Empirical social and natural sciences try to systematise the observation process in order to make sure that our senses are not deceiving us. The ‘scientific method’ goes something like this: first, we develop an hypothesis, a proposition or question about something that we could be right about already but that we don’t know for certain. Then we observe that thing very carefully, collecting data from extended, intensive or repeated observation. This allows us to isolate facts – things that have been proven or shown to be repeatedly or inarguably true – from mere conjectures or opinions. We draw conclusions from these facts through a process of inductive reasoning. We use our minds to infer a general meaning from what we have learned from closely experiencing one particular thing or, better still, counting a number of particular things. With our close observation and our counting, we might then come to the carefully considered conclusion that something happens generally. Then we put together these conclusions into a theory or generalisation that, unless exceptions are found or until it is disproved, is considered to be true knowledge.

For instance, climate scientists may carefully measure glaciers around the world and find that many of them are shrinking. They make careful measurements today. They compare old measurements. They do this at a good number of glaciers. On the basis of this evidence, they might then come to the conclusion that the world’s climate is getting warmer. Each of us may not be able to come to reliable conclusions about climate change from the perspectives of our daily lifeworld experiences of the weather. But by systematic observation, testing of facts and drawing conclusions, scientists can provide deeper knowledge than what is available to us from everyday, casual experience.

Empirical science does not rely on conventional wisdom. Indeed, it constantly questions conventional wisdom. Nor does it rely on divine revelation. Most natural scientists would dispute the claim made by the Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts that God created humans seven days after he began to create the world, about 6000 years ago. Most scientists say this claim has been definitively disproved by empirical science. On the question of life on Earth, they argue, the facts overwhelmingly support the theory of evolution.

Different areas of knowledge may use different empirical methods, as appropriate to their subject matter, and the use of different methods is reflected in the division of academic research into disciplines and of school learning into subjects. Biological science proceeds with laboratory experimentation, history by looking at original source documents, archaeology by examining evidence dug up from abandoned human settlements, economics by calculating what happens in markets, literature by reading texts closely and education by looking at student results after different kinds of curriculum intervention.

Whatever the variations in empirical method from one discipline to the next, strict empiricists become highly committed to their method and consider other ways of knowing the world to be inferior. They believe that the knowledge they form using their method is about as true as true can get, or at least until further empirical investigation can be undertaken. Their conclusions may be proved wrong later on, but only by providing new, more thorough and more convincing empirical evidence.

See Ibn Tufayl on Knowledge from Experience and the Discovery of the Creator.

The critics of empiricism, however, argue that it is too narrow in its understanding of knowledge and truth. Caught up in detailed observation and careful calculation, empiricists sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. They might have lots of facts, but have they been asking the right questions and looking for the right things? Do the questions they ask beg certain answers, so the ‘facts’ end up coloured by the perspectives of the questioner? Empiricists can also tend to form a new ‘priestly class’ of experts who control knowledge because they have access to special methods and bodies of knowledge that ordinary people do not. They may hide their opinions and beliefs in a bewildering fog of facts, complex theories supposedly founded in evidence, and a ‘trust me, I really know’ approach to non-experts.

Rationalist truths

Rationalism is a way of knowing that places reason and the human mind’s capacity to make sense of the world at the centre of knowledge. The early modern philosopher René Descartes argued that you can never really trust your senses. Whatever you think you see might always be subsequently proven untrue – it may have been a dream or an optical illusion. The only thing you can know for sure is the existence of your doubting self. In fact, you only ever know about something as close to you as your body and its sensations because your mind tells you about your body. The mind, then, is something separate from, though connected to, the body, and is the final source of all knowledge. ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think therefore I am’, was Descartes’ famous conclusion about the ultimate source of knowledge.

See Descartes: ‘I think therefore I am’.

Several centuries later, another modern philosopher, Immanuel Kant, argued that the concepts or categories we use to understand the world are the products of the reasoning mind. Time and space, for instance, are ‘prior’ concepts, or basic concepts of the mind, rather than things that can ever be proven to exist ‘out there’ in the world. Reason sets the human mind to work to figure things out (Kant 1781). Scientists, for example, never simply observe the world. Instead, they use their reason to decide the right questions to ask. They make logical connections. They create theories. These are creative activities of the human mind, and not simply a reflection of what has been absorbed from the outside world. Kant’s focus on the reasoning mind has implications for learning. Empirical knowledge suggests that you describe what you have carefully observed, or trust the facts that others have reported to you and put together into theories. But rationalist knowledge entails a deeper understanding in which you are able to figure things out for yourself, and know how to arrive at the answer.

See Immanuel Kant on Reason’s Role in Understanding.

Figure 7.3: Immanuel Kant, 1724–1804

Reasoning involves rigorous, logical thinking, famously described by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Here is an example of his formal, logical reasoning: ‘If all humans are mortal, and all Greeks are humans, then all Greeks are mortal.’(Aristotle, 350 BCE-b) This kind of reasoning may be connected with experience, where the facts are known or assumed. (Aristotle assumes we already know about mortality.) Then, logical connections or likely consequences are figured out by using of a process called ‘deduction’. Reasoning may also be framed by means of categories or frameworks of meaning found in our language. The resources we have to speak about our world help us to see and understand our world in particular ways. Our reasoning capacity also requires that we continually question the world, reining our arguments and subjecting our thinking and knowledge to critique.

See Aristotle on Higher Forms of Knowledge.

Critics of rationalism, or the commitment to the reasoning mind as the centre of knowledge, accuse it of logocentrism, or privileging abstract and formal logic over sensation, feeling and emotion. They accuse it of anthropocentrism, or putting humans at the centre of the universe. And they argue that it does not take sufficient account of cultural differences. Given the universal human capacity to think logically, rationalism seems to imply that if they were to think hard enough and long enough, everyone should come up with the same rational answers. However, humans in different cultural contexts, and who speak different languages, think differently.

Canonical truths

Ways of knowing can also be based on canonical bodies of knowledge, often summarised for learners in the authoritative voice of the textbook and the teacher. For instance, canonical mother-tongue language teaching, such as the teaching of English in English-speaking countries, focuses on ‘correct’ pronunciation and usage that is not necessarily the same as the dialects, accents and forms of usage that children are used to at home. Taking ‘language arts’ involves learning formal writing in standard, official forms of the national language. It requires students to read great literature in order to imbibe the best style and the highest human spirit that, it is believed, is captured in great novels, plays and poetry. To give another example, the canonical discipline of history consists of a body of facts and dates, and an overall narrative that places significant people in the unfolding story of important events. History consists of a number of defined facts strung together into narratives. School history hands down to new generations what we already know about the past. Usually, it is just the one story, told in the way that people in powerful positions in society believe it should be told. To give still another example, science is a canonical body of knowledge that consists of lots of facts about the natural world and the theoretical or disciplinary frameworks that tie these facts together – physics or chemistry, for instance. And a final example: mathematics is a set of canonical rules, starting with learning our times-tables early in school, moving on later to complex theorems, formulae and proofs.

Ways of knowing that rely on canonical bodies of disciplinary knowledge reflect a commitment to received wisdoms – what great writers have written and what great scientists have discovered, for instance. Students of these canonical truths learn them as proven facts, definitive theories that synthesise these facts, and social or cultural ideals. The virtue of canonical knowledge is to select and synthesise content knowledge. Also, if all students learn the same things, we will end up having a shared body of knowledge. This lays the foundation of the common cultural heritage that binds together a community or a nation.

There are disadvantages in the canonical approach to knowledge, though. Empiricists argue that people should try to observe the facts for themselves rather than simply accept what others present to them as given. Rationalists put the case that you don’t really understand a theory until you have figured it out for yourself. Empiricists and rationalists both argue that, by accepting canonical truths as presented, the learner is taking too passive a part in the knowledge process. They are allowing authorities to take control of knowledge. Learning, in the canonical view, is a process of authoritative content transmission and memorisation. The result is that knowledge remains abstract and distant, removed from everyday experience. There is also an inherent conservatism in this approach to knowledge. The assumption is that canonical bodies of knowledge remain fairly stable over long periods of time.

See Matthew Arnold on Learning ‘The Best Which Has Been Thought and Said’.

Dimension 2: Ways of learning

Each of these ways of knowing embodies a philosophy of learning and, with it, an often quite committed view of its practical effectiveness or rightness as teaching method.

Religious teaching has a significant non-rationalist and non-empiricist component. The fundamentals of existence are in God’s control, and the sacred text is a more important source of truth than anything that can be merely created by human reason or empirical observation. In the case of the Islamic sacred text, the Koran, this approach to learning sometimes extends to the point at which believers learn to recite the entire text by heart, in its original Arabic.

Empiricist ways of knowing assume that education should be based on learning observable facts. Sometimes this might be experiential, such as a science experiment or an excursion during which students see things for themselves. Empirically focused, didactic curricula are also often full of facts handed down to students to memorise and repeat in tests.

Rationalist ways of knowing focus on logic, reasoning and the development of theoretical capacities. Some school subjects are more dependent than others on the rationalist knowledge framework, such as mathematics and physics. History and persuasive writing in literacy also require the creation of texts using genres of argumentation. Critics argue that an excessively theoretical approach to learning and teaching can at times become overly abstract. It can seem ‘schoolish’, removed from the practical purposes of knowing. Students can sometimes feel that the disciplinary formality is not particularly relevant to their lives and interests.

Canonical knowledge sometimes overlaps with the other approaches. In fact, religious knowledge is canonical – its peculiarity is that it prioritises sacred texts ahead of secular texts. Empiricism, which focuses on learning facts, relies on canonical bodies of fact. And rationalism often relies on canonical theories.

See E.D. Hirsch on ‘Cultural Literacy’.

A common tendency across all these committed ways of knowing is that, the more committed they are, the more exclusionary they tend to be of other ways of knowing. And the more committed they are, the more didactic their teaching methods seem to be. In other words, the balance of agency is heavily skewed towards authoritative knowledge sources and teachers. Learners are positioned as relatively compliant absorbers of what they have been told. Of course, the proponents of each of these ways of knowing would argue that there is a strong element of volition on the part of learners as knowers – the act of faith of the religious learner, the observations of the empirical learner and the active reasoning of the rationalist learner. Often this is true and, when it is true, the approach is all the more powerful for that. However, when measured against the knowledge source and teacher, the level of agency of the learner as knowledge maker in strongly committed ways of knowing is, more often than not, comparatively low.

There are, however, strengths in committed ways of knowing, and these strengths are the basis for forming powerful knowledge repertoires, as we discuss in the third part of this chapter. Religions prompt learners to ask themselves deep spiritual questions about human meaning that are sometimes neglected in the other ways of knowing. Empiricism teaches the learner to be an acute observer. Rationalism teaches reasoning, or thorough understanding of how one can come to a particular conclusion. Canonical knowledge requires that we become conversant with bodies of knowledge that encapsulate human understanding to date within discipline areas.

Dimension 3: Sites of learning

Highly committed ways of knowing grant authority to specialised groups of knowledge makers.

The authors of sacred religious texts are people – sometimes anonymous and sometimes named – who have been the recipients of divine revelation. Priests and religious teachers are placed in powerful positions often formally ordained as qualified to interpret texts that are at times obscure or not written in the vernacular of believers. These texts also contain accounts of religious events and explanations of the world that are unbelievable on the basis of everyday experience, and thus require ‘faith’ to be believed. Religious knowledge creates an institutional separation between sites of knowledge creation and teaching (the sacred texts, the house of God, the instructional encounter with the priest or religious teacher) and the rest of life.

The creators of empirical knowledge are also members of a specialist group that uses its privileged access to knowledge-constructing techniques, which in turn puts it in a powerful position – the researcher who finds out and interprets the facts, the journalist who gets close to an incident or issue, or the textbook writer and teacher who present the key facts of a subject to learners. In children’s and adults’ learning, the school, college or university is a key institutional conduit for the transmission of empirical knowledge, and the formation of a new generation of empirical knowledge workers.

So, too, people who create and transmit reasoned argumentation – who develop scientific theories or literary interpretations, for instance – are from specialised groups. They become influential and powerful for their privileged knowledge-creating positions in society.

Facts, theories and literatures may be put together into canonical bodies of knowledge and cultural insight. The sources of the canon are created by great thinkers and great writers. Their texts end up being given a privileged institutional position, in society in general, but particularly in education. New initiates read canonical texts in school. Or the textbook writer and the teacher become intermediaries in a knowledge-production system, outlining and explaining the disciplinary canon. Learners become the recipients of this knowledge.

In each of these models, the general direction of the low of knowledge is from the institutions of knowledge creation, via a knowledge transmission system that includes education, to a broader society that absorbs that knowledge.