Skip to main content

University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Ayer, A.J. (1969). The Problem of Knowledge. London: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Barnett, R. (1994). The Limits of Competence. Buckingham: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Barnett, R. (1997). Higher Education: A Critical Business. Buckingham: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Barnett, R. (2000a). Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity. Buckingham: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Barnett, R. (2000b). ‘Working knowledge’, in Garrick, J. and Rhodes, C. (eds), Understanding Learning at Work. London: Routledge (in press).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Barnett, R. and Griffin, A. (eds) (1997). The End of Knowledge in Higher Education. London: Cassell.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Barrett, W. (1978). The Illusion of Technique. London: William Kimber.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Bernstein, B. (1996). Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity. London: Taylor and Francis.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Clark, B. (1998). Creating Entrepreneurial Universities. Oxford: Pergamon.

    Google Scholar 

  10. CVCP and HEFCE (2000). The Business of Borderless Education: UK Perspectives. London: CVCP.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Delanty, G. (1998). ‘The idea of the university in the global era: From knowledge as an end to the end of knowledge?’, Social Epistemology 12(1), 3–26.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Eraut, M. (1994). Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence. London: Falmer.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Gibbons, M. et al. (1994). The New Production of Knowledge. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity. Cambridge: Polity.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Gokulsing, K. and DaCosta, C. (1997). University Knowledges as the Goal of University Education. Lampeter: Edwin Mullen.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Hirst, P. (1974). Knowledge and the Curriculum. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Horton, R. (1971). ‘African traditional thought and Western science’, in Young, M.F.D. (ed.), Knowledge and Control. London: Collier-Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Kenney-Wallace, G. (2000). ‘Plato.com: The role and impact of corporate universities in the third millenium’, in Scott, P. (ed.), Higher Education Re-Formed. London: Falmer.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Kuhn, T.S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Lyotard, J-F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester.

  22. Marcuse, H. (1965). ‘Repressive tolerance’, in Connerton, P. (ed.), (1978) Critical Sociology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  23. NCIHE (1997). Higher Education in a Learning Society. Report of National Committed of Inquiry into Higher Education. London: HMSO.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Nonaka, I., Umenoto, K. and Sasaki, K. (1998). ‘Three tales of knowledge-creating companies’, in von Krogh, G. et al. (eds.), Knowing in Firms. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Polanyi, M. (ed.) (1978). Personal Knowledge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Readings, B. (1996). The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Rorty, R. (1999). Philosophy and Social Hope. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Schon, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Slaughter, S. and Leslie, L.L. (1997). Academic Capitalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Stehr, N. (1994). Knowledge Societies. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  33. van Dijk, T.A. (1998). Ideology: a Multidisciplinary Approach. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  34. von Krogh, G. et al. (1996). ‘An essay in corporate epistemology’, in von Krogh, G. and Ross, J. (eds), Managing Knowledge. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Barnett, R. University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity. Higher Education 40, 409–422 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1004159513741

Download citation

  • complexity
  • epistemology
  • knowledge
  • pedagogy
  • universities