'Know-How', 'Know-What' and the politics of knowledge for social change

In an age when wealth and power present a more diffuse and benign face to the world, the soft authority of knowledge is ever more important as a force for social change. The politics of knowledge – how ideas are created, used and disseminated – represents a key issue for the social change community
Michael Edwards
1 October 2010

When I was a PhD student in London in the late 1970s, I lived in a truly horrible house on the Archway Road just south of Highgate, damp, freezing cold, falling to pieces and full of people who were even lazier than I was. So as a form of light relief I used to take myself off to Highgate Cemetery nearby to look at the graves of all the famous Victorians who were buried there, including Karl Marx, who was one of my favourites, me being something of a leftist in my younger days. Everyone knows the first half of the inscription that’s written on Marx’s gravestone - “Workers of all lands unite” - but it was the other half that really grabbed my attention: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways”, it says, “the point is to change it.”

That phrase really spoke to me, and in fact it was the reason I left academia after submitting my thesis and joined the world of NGOs in 1982, but I was also worried by it, because I couldn’t see how one could change the world successfully unless one also understood what made it work. And that feeling of dissatisfaction has shaped my thinking ever since as I’ve sought and tried out many different ways of combining knowledge with social action. I used to think that somewhere in the universe, there would be a perfect synthesis of the two waiting to be channelled into path-breaking new methodologies and institutions, but now I think that’s a bit naïve, because knowledge and action inhabit different life-worlds with their own distinctive time-frames, priorities and incentives – tensions that can be managed but not resolved. And because both always sit in the wider context of power relations and politics - the things that decide which ideas are legitimate and how thinking is translated into action of various kinds - managing these tensions requires a constant balancing act between ‘know-what’ (meaning technical knowledge in the form of information and ideas), and ‘know-how’ (meaning knowledge-making capacities and the ability to put them into practice). Let me explain what I mean by using a concrete example.

In the United States today, one of the most contentious debates centres around the reform of secondary education, where a powerful network of business-oriented philanthropists, non-profits and think-tanks that they fund, all with close contacts and connections with senior figures in city and federal government, are engaged in a systematic effort to introduce private (or ‘charter’) schools and market salaries at the top of the tree, weaken the power of the teachers’ unions on the grounds that ‘bad teachers’ lie at the root of the problem, increase top-down control to protect their reforms from the electoral cycle, and promote the use of standardized test scores in mathematics and English to close schools and fire teachers who don’t measure up.

This entire movement is built around reams of data and wagon-loads of research studies that support its prescriptions, and indeed one of its prime selling points has been that it is ‘knowledge-based’ or ‘data-driven’ rather than ideological, which has proved to be a very effective tactic in building cross-party support in Congress and in the public imagination, supported by a spate of recent films financed by Jeff Skoll’s “Participant Productions”, the co-founder of ebay who also produced “An Inconvenient Truth”.

However, when one digs a little more deeply into the ‘know-what’ of education, one finds that there are just as many reams of data, and wagon-loads of research studies, that support the opposite conclusions. Across the board, charter schools don’t perform any better than regular schools; standardized tests are unreliable as measures of educational achievement because they screen out things like civic education, music and languages, and are biased against the learning characteristics of black and Latino kids; top-down control does protect reforms but only by excluding the voices of teachers, kids and parents; even great teachers struggle in schools that have lots of pupils from poor socio-economic backgrounds (which the positive research often fails to control for); and rising inequalities in salaries contribute to low morale, so low that they have led to teachers committing suicide, as Rigoberto Ruelas did in Los Angeles last week when confronted by the test scores for his class in an inner-city school that were published in the LA Times.

Even more disturbing is the fact that the backers of these reforms have been able to manipulate democracy in favour of agendas that are supposed to be objective by helping to elect their political allies, as Bill Gates did when he gave $4 million through an NGO called ‘Learn-New York’ in support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign to abolish term limits in New York City, and who, once re-elected, promptly reinforced official support for the school reforms that Gates was already funding. “The new game in town”, says the Washington Monthly “is to dominate the entire intellectual environment in which decisions are made, which means funding everything from think tanks to issue ads to phoney grassroots pressure groups.” Once that is accomplished, ideology can be turned into knowledge, and knowledge that challenges ideology can be discounted. You can use the same frame to interpret any current hot-button debate, for and against the second ‘Green Revolution in Africa’, for example, or the costs and benefits of market-based strategies for poverty-reduction. The truth is that any significant question in the social arena takes us into disputed territory that is increasingly enveloped by the fog of ideology and interest group contestation.

That's because, outside the science laboratory, there are no universally-accepted data to guide decisions, only different views of which data to collect, what they mean, and how they should be used – there is, in other words, no unambiguous ‘know-what’ to underpin policy and practice. In fact studies undertaken in 2005 and 2006 by researchers at the University of Michigan found that people rarely change their minds when exposed to corrected facts in news stories – and many actually become even more attached to their pre-existing views, especially on controversial issues, a problem that is heightened by the increasing glut of information that confronts us, which harbours both new insights and new myths, rumours and downright fabrications. And given that globalization is throwing differences over religion, economics and the meaning of social change itself into even sharper relief - not eradicating them as some thought would happen - we can expect contests over knowledge to continue. So what should we do?

I think there are two answers to this question, and they lead in different directions. The first is to recognize that technical knowledge invariably declines into technocracy unless we also invest in the knowledge-making and interpretive capacities of the broadest range possible of the population, especially those of disadvantaged or excluded groups, so that there are enough counterweights in society to provide more accountability and feedback, challenge accepted notions of what is needed or effective, and bring non-mainstream ideas to the table. We are co-creators of knowledge, not practitioners of detached scholarship in a world divided between producers and consumers. Our aim is not to strengthen pockets of knowledge connected to decision-making elites, but to help build know-how throughout society in order to underpin democratic processes of problem-solving and public policy formulation. Knowledge has a social purpose in animating the public sphere – it isn’t just a private activity that produces insights, increasingly on a commercial basis, for others in academia, or the sponsors of research in government and business. We know that active social learning writ large is the only basis for democratic governance through deliberation, consensus-building and accountability, so that - like rocks in a stream - the sharp edges of people’s differences can be softened over time as they knock against each-other in the rough-and-tumble of debate, where ‘know-what’ meets ‘know-how’ in conditions of equality and freedom.

But - and here’s the second part of my answer, ‘know what’ remains very important to social change, because not all forms of knowledge can or should be democratically-created and controlled, either because the processes involved are too slow, or too subject to interest-group manipulation even among well-intentioned individuals and agencies, or because there really are questions that have answers which are not simply matters of opinion. I’ve changed my mind on this issue over the years as a result of hard experience, and now I’m convinced that the traditional virtues of academic rigour and independence are essential to the success of any knowledge venture, especially in highly-politicised environments.

Rigour – the painstaking parsing out of problems and solutions; the interrogation of all the evidence about costs and benefits, winners and losers; the ability to identify both the individual pieces of a puzzle and put them back together again into an accurate and coherent picture; the skills of presenting and comparing different theories of change; the depth of understanding built up by studying the same phenomena over long periods of time; the potential for accountability that results from a deliberate distancing of oneself from a pre-determined position; and the freedom to stand apart and shout from the rooftops “no, I don’t agree, this emperor has no clothes” - all these are crucial elements of the knowledge-making we need, though it is also true that rigor is not the exclusive property of universities. Distributing the capacity for rigor throughout civil society is a key task for the next many years.

In an age when wealth and power present a more diffuse and benign face to the world, the soft authority of knowledge is ever more important as a force for social change. That’s why the politics of knowledge – how ideas are created, used and disseminated – represents a key issue for the social change community. I’ve argued that the best way to improve the politics of knowledge is to re-combine ‘know-what’ and ‘know-how’ in a variety of ways which challenge existing institutions and approaches. And that involves a tremendous amount of work. But rather than worrying about the difficulties involved or obsessing about the perfect way to address them, my advice is simply to enjoy the ride, because this is exciting and important work that could change the rules of the game forever. When we are dead and buried in Highgate Cemetery or wherever else, and some spotty and underfed PHD student or NGO activist comes visiting our grave for inspiration, let’s hope that they’ll be able to read a different inscription on our headstones that speaks of the work we did to interpret and change the world together as one messy, conjoined and transformative process. I’d be very happy to leave a legacy like that, and I hope you would too.

This article stems from a talk given by Mike Edwards at the Knowledge and Change conference in the Hague, 29th September - 1st October.


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