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Breakthrough knowledge: Research, education and universities

November 5, 2011

Discovering something no one knew before is research. Discovering something that you didn’t know before, but someone else did, is education.

I love the idea of universities. I spend my days with people who work to understand something better: the universe, the world, societies, brains, kids, change, books, and more. That’s research. What do we know? What do we think we know that might be wrong? What do we have no clue about? Every day, some researchers at every university figure out something that no one knew before. A breakthrough!

I spend my days with people who work to understand things that others have figured out before them; they are students, to be precise. They’re learning about the same things that researchers are working on, getting up to speed, thinking through the issues that others have thought through earlier. What did she mean by that? How did he come to that conclusion? How can I apply their idea to my situation? Every day, some students at every university end their day knowing something they didn’t know that morning. Another breakthrough!

I spend my days with people trying to write, tell about their research, to organize their thoughts about what others have said. Sometimes writing is easy – just watch Scott Berkun write 1000 words in a few minutes! Sometimes writing is hard – and then it’s a good idea to consider Seth’s advice … or Lynn’s.

The idea that there are institutions that bring these things together is surely one of the great ideas of humanity.

But the things I love about universities don’t happen on their own. I want for the researchers and teachers at my university to have days filled with thinking, studying, researching, and debate. I want the students to have days filled with reading, asking, arguing, and writing.

The freedom to have days like that is constantly being confronted, it’s constantly threatened. One point of confrontation is “relevance” — politicians and the societies that elect them want for universities to be more relevant. And because we are researchers and students, we tend not to answer that challenge, but rather to discuss it, to think about it, to expand it, to submit it to thorough inspection!

Do I want the research and teaching we do to be useful? Of course. But I think those activities I just mentioned are at the heart of relevance and usefulness. Does asking how to be relevant make us more relevant?

I think we make ourselves more relevant by trying to answer the research questions we’re passionate about, by trying to get as good as we can about understanding a problem and clearly reformulating it. The relevance of research and education is a side-effect, an inevitable consequence.

When we debate the future of the university, I argue for that position. I push it hard, in debates and discussions, and when I do, I hope to ask questions that lead others to thoughts they’ve never had before. Because that’s what we do. At universities.

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