Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Power to Rebel

Sean Coughlan, Education Correspondent for BBC News, began the piece he filed last night with a catchy lead:

At the beginning of the last century, the power of nations might have been measured in battleships and coal.

In this century it's as likely to be graduates.

Ultimately, however, this is not an article about education.  Rather, it is about university globalization, which is to say it is about the future of universities as “graduate-producing” businesses, rather that as “communities of learning,” even if part of the story has to do with how those communities are less constrained by geographic localization.

Still, that bit about power is catchy, probably catchy enough to get the attention of members of the business community who could care less about education but are always quick to get in on a rising market.  On the other hand those few remaining souls who take the time to think about history, rather than business, know that power can be an asset or a liability, depending on who is using it for what purposes.  To assume that we are entering a brave new world of globalization in which not only is knowledge power but also all power would be used for the good of all mankind is beyond naïve.  It’s just plain stupid.  Power, regardless of the forces that endow it, will always be about conflict;  and history has taught us that the twentieth century was one in which conflict escalated to monstrous propositions in more settings than anyone would choose to enumerate.

What does this tell us about knowledge, power, and our current century?  Coughlan would have done well to look beyond the needs of the BBC Business section and check out what is being reported in the News.  More specifically, he should have spent less time comparing the sizes of the endowments at Harvard University and the London School of Economics and more time looking at what well-educated graduates are doing on the streets in countries across the Middle East, as more historically-conscious writers like Fareed Zakaria have done.  As Zakaria observed, these waves of rebellion are coming from the young and educated;  and, as I put it in my own reflections on his analysis, they are educated enough to recognize that, whatever their nationality may be, those in power have robbed them of any possibility of a future.

Will this be the century in which the power of knowledge is the power to rebel;  and, if so, what will be the consequences of how that power is exercised?

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