Higher Education

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 409–422 | Cite as

University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity

  • Ronald Barnett


For various reasons, it is becoming felt that the knowledge function of the university is being undermined. Some, indeed, have come to suggest that we are witnessing 'the end of knowledge' in higher education. The 'end of knowledge' thesis takes three forms. Substantively, it is felt that the knowledge sustained by the university has no particular status: it simply takes its place and its chances amid the proliferating knowledges that society has now to offer. Ideologically, it is felt that the knowledge for which the university stands lacks legitimacy: it can simply be understood as a set of language games of a rather privileged set of occupational groups ('academics') that reflects their interests and marginal standing to the rest of society. Procedurally, it is implied that the university can now only secure its future by becoming entrepreneurial and by marketing its knowledge wares in forms of academic capitalism; in the process, its knowledge becomes performative in character and loses its power to enlighten. Much of this analysis is correct – even as the theses cut across each other – butthe conclusion is wrong. The modern world is supercomplex in character: it can be understood as a milieu for the proliferation of frameworks by which we might understand the world, frameworks that are often competing with each other. In such an age of supercomplexity, the university has new knowledge functions: to add to supercomplexity by offering completely new frames of understanding (so compounding supercomplexity); to help us comprehend and make sense of the resulting knowledge mayhem; and to enable us to live purposefully amid supercomplexity. Knowledge, as a pure, objective reading of the world does have to be adandoned. But the university is not, thereby, delegitimised. In an age of supercomplexity, a new epistemology for the university awaits, one that is open, bold, engaging, accessible, and conscious of its own insecurity. It is an epistemology for living amid uncertainty.

complexity epistemology knowledge pedagogy universities 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ronald Barnett
    • 1
  1. 1.Deans' Office, Institute of EducationUniversity of LondonLondonUK

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