Higher Education in the Information Age

Research: Knowledge Generation in the Global Information Age

Peter Drucker


Jerry Wind: Good afternoon. I'm Jerry Wind, and the session we're going to start is on research knowledge generation in the global information age. The focus so far has been on knowledge dissemination. Occasionally we heard some comments about the need for research and what we would like to do this afternoon is to devote a session to this very, very important topic that is at the essence of the research university, which is generation of knowledge. And in the generation of knowledge we're talking about the generation of the concepts, theories, new methodologies that people can use as well as the generation of knowledge on the learning process that the students and other users of the technologies that we've been talking so much about. But we cannot forget the first part: the generation of new concepts and methods and theories. The objective of the session is to shed light on this very important area and ideally identify some of the issues, and at the end of the session what I would very much hope that we'll be able to do is to start identifying some of the required actions to move us closer toward accomplishing the objective of excellence in the knowledge generation activity of the university in the global information age.

To guide us in our tour and discussion is Peter Drucker. He's a writer, teacher, consultant, management philosopher, one of the most published authors in the management field. He has published close to thirty books, thousands of articles, monographs. He was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal for many years, and he wrote numerous books, about 13, on society, economics, and politics that I'm sure many of you have read. He has about an equal number of books that deal with management, with the absolute classic of all time, The Concept of the Corporation. More recently, books that deal with managing the non-profit organization, managing for the future, managing in time of great change. He has two novels, he has out a biography, and for those of you who don't know Peter personally and would like to get a better appreciation for the breadth and depth of his interest, he actually has a fascinating book of Adventures of the Brush: Japanese Paintings that he wrote in 1979. He has consulted extensively. He formed the much of the current thinking in the management area, and it is no wonder that in a recent issue of the McKinley Quarterly they called him "Drucker: the Guru's Guru". With this, let me welcome to our session Peter Drucker.

Peter Drucker: Thank you very much, Jerry Wind, and let me say ladies and gentlemen that I'm very, very grateful to you for allowing me to take part in this important conference from 3,000 miles away. That is itself already a part of what we are discussing, namely the impact of the new information technology on learning, on communication, on knowledge. But I feel sadly inadequate, frankly, because my only qualification to speak on the generation of knowledge is that I am--I don't know whether I'm the only one--but I'm one of the very few senior professors at major universities, one of the very few--I'm told the only one--who has never applied for a grant. And not because I didn't need the money, but because I didn't trust the system. I didn't bluntly believe that we were in the generation of knowledge.

And also let me say that the new information technology is only the trigger that opens up the rethinking, restructuring, rearrangement of education. Even without it, education certainly in all developed countries would be in profound crisis and transformation. Nothing can grow as fast as higher education has grown. All of you know that in the thirty years between 1960 and 1990 the number of students in American post-high school, post-secondary education, which means mostly colleges, that number has increased ten fold. And nothing can grow like this without requiring a profound transformation not just of its structure, but of its basic assumptions and the basic beliefs. And we have a healthcare crisis out in the open in every developed country, we have an education crisis out in the open, and I'm not sure what some of the implications are. Or rather, I'm sure of some of the unimportant implications.

One of the unimportant implications is that the research university is dead. It cannot be maintained. We will have to accept the fact that only a very, very few institutions, very few, can maintain research in a given area. The university is the last institution we have that has escaped specialization. And in our major universities we are still trying to do everything, and it doesn't work. And it is predictable that within, I don't know, 30, 40 years universities will specialize. In fact that's already happening. Here is a friend of mine, a distinguished senior physicist, head of the physics departments in one of our great universities, who, he doesn't believe that physics work is being done except in three places in this country and in four places outside of this country. And those seven places are the physics world of today, and I have another friend, very distinguished art historian and he says exactly the same for art history. And I think it is predictable that the research university of today which tries to do everything is not tenable, and expense in the least of it.

Specialization has more to do with it, but the main factor is that these physicists in the seven institutions are in daily contact, know each other, and it makes no difference whether they are located in Triesle or in Sekouba, in Japan or in Chicago; they see themselves as the physics establishment. And the same is true of the art historians. And we don't look to 99% of the universities that do research work in art history. They may have a good man or two in this field or that, but when we want to talk art history, we go to five world-wide institutions, six perhaps. The rest are to art history what a fast food restaurant is to a four star restaurant. One eats there if one has to, but not eagerly. And so I think it is predictable that the research universities of today will split. A few, a very few will specialize in this area, that area, and the top people will form a world-wide fraternity in which they are not even held together by the parking lot. They are held together by the Internet. And the rest may or may not stay in these disciplines, but not as researchers, not as people to whom we look for what we now call knowledge.

And I think when I looked at our program that another thing is predictable, and it's not in our program. The constituencies that will bring about the greatest changes in education are not the present education establishments. They are the fastest growing educational audience in history, which are highly educated adults in continuing education. They're not even in our program. And yet in every one of the--not in every one. In a good many of the institutions represented in our meeting in one way or another they are already our first constituency, the one which offers us the greatest opportunities, but also the greatest challenges. A good deal of their education will not be on campus . It will be in their place of business, not in the homes. We have learned that people need to be together to learn, and very few people learn in their homes that way. Or at least that's our lesson so far where we have tried it. Open University, for instance, or a few American institutions. But they will not be traditional students, though they will probably want the degree, and the degree has a very wholesome disciplinary purpose. It keeps people from dropping out, even if they don't need the degree for any other purpose.

And we also know I think that any change like the one we are undergoing is not the only change. The method of delivery, it changes what is being delivered. And just as a printed book created the modern university and in fact abolished the disciplines of the mediaeval university or relegated them to the back waters, so will the new information carriers change our basic disciplines. And most important is that it will change the meaning of knowledge. The last 40 years, maybe a little longer, we have defined knowledge as acquisition of information. That is one possible definition. It isn't the only one. There is a much older definition that knowledge is what people can learn. Knowledge is not, as in any communication, the emitter, but the recipient. And looked at this way, the last 70 years have been years-100 years-have been years of losing knowledge steadily.

When my father graduated almost exactly 100 years ago in 1897 with a distinguished career in law and economics, ending up teaching European literature at Berkeley in his last ten years, he was as non-technical, non-scientific a person as you could imagine, and yet he and educated people of his generation were expected not to understand the contents of physics, but what physics is, what physics deals with, what it assumes, how it goes about its work. And so I expected to have the same in my own life: fundamental knowledge in every single area. That is what being an educated person meant. It didn't mean being able to do surgery, but it meant being able to understand medicine. It didn't mean to be able to do linguistics, but it meant to be able to understand what linguists are up to. And in the last 100 years we have lost that faculty, and not just in formal schooling. We have lost it for adults as well. And so let me say this is I think predictable, and I lead with my chin, but it is one of the major, perhaps the major probability, that we will have to shift back to the definition of knowledge as what students can and will learn. Otherwise it isn't knowledge. Otherwise it's information and sterile.

And knowledge, let me say, is one of the three important areas in which it doesn't exist unless it is at work. Money under the mattress isn't money, electricity until I turn the switch isn't electricity, and knowledge unless I have it and can use it isn't knowledge. It is information. And that we have forgotten these last 100 years, and we will have to recover it for the simple reason that when we bring the master teacher into the middle school by a satellite, interactive, that master teacher has to be both a, I wouldn't say leader, but a generator of information in his area--call it research--and a communicator, so that 15 year old gets perhaps not advanced genetics but an understanding of genetics and an excitement about genetics and respect for genetics and saying, "Well, this isn't for me. My field is over here, but it is something that is part of my experience, part of my persona." In other words, in that old controversy between Socrates and the Sophists, where for 100 years we have all been extreme Sophists and seen knowledge as the ability of an elite to do things nobody else can do, we will again shift back to knowledge as something that makes a bigger, a stronger, a more achieving, and above all, a fuller person. And that I think is almost predictable.

And that will mean the generation of knowledge will increase --I'm not saying replace--the existing definitions. We will keep on with research. Though let me say it is high time we accepted the fact that it is stupid to expect every university to do research in every field. The mediocrity of most of the work--well, all you have to do is look at Ph.D. theses and look at technical journals, and it's a mediocrity which in my younger days--and I'm not even talking of the '20's, I'm talking of the '30's--we in this country would not have tolerated. And I mean that literally. And that's bankrupt. And where you have teachers who don't teach, because their Ph.D. thesis was outstanding. There's no relationship at all, and I've been hiring faculty now for 50 years. None at all. And so our basic most important area of knowledge, of the generation of knowledge, will be work on making knowledge effective, on making that master teacher effective, but also on providing the materials for the master teacher whom I would love to come into my classroom.

Nothing would make me happier than to have Jerry Wind talk to my advanced executive program, people of 45, half profit, half nonprofit, but all of them in positions of high responsibility-have a Jerry Wind come into my classroom and talk to my students and answer their questions and make them--more than that, feel--make them know that they have learned something. And Jerry probably would do a wonderful job, but he doesn't have the materials. And so I see the greatest demand on us in the university--and I've been teaching 68 years since my 20th birthday at all kinds of places and subjects--I hope that within a very short time we will work together on the work we have done the last 40 and 50 years and make it effective, make it useful.

In the hard sciences there is a correlation, and maybe it's easier to do in the hard sciences even though they're harder for people to learn, but in the hard sciences their researches and knowledge have never been divorced. In the humanities, very bluntly, if you look for historians, which is my original field--and I was supposed to be a pretty good historian--the great historians in this country were in undergraduate schools in 1936 in Oberlin and Williams and Swarthmore. There were not the specialists in research universities. When you look at art history we have the same. When you look at literary criticism, whatever that may be, we have the same. And today there is almost no relationship. And the big challenge for the generation of knowledge has to begin with a redefinition of knowledge as something students learn, and not as something that is basically obscure. That's obscurantism. That's not knowledge. And the big challenge is to develop the means of transfer.

The technology is there. It's a carrier. When the book came in for the first 30 years they printed bibles and sermons. My name means printer. That's Dutch for printer, and my ancestors for 250 years in Holland were printers. But after 50 years they added totally new subject matter. They added Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dreisden and medicine. Their meaning changed. That is going to happen. And knowledge from being a theologian changed to being a scholar. And knowledge is about the change from being a scholar to being a learner. And this I think is the great challenge we face.

The problem of success always creates new problems. We have grown beyond anybody's expectation--nobody could possibly have foreseen, before World War II, the explosive growth of higher education, not only in this country--world-wide. But nobody could then have foreseen the growing alienation between the person and knowledge, which I think is a central problem and a very damning problem of our society today. It isn't only that our kids don't learn to read and write. It is that our engineers know designing and machine tools, but they don't know anything about the world in which they live in. They don't know anything about the areas of information outside of their own. Nor do the economists. And our big challenge, the challenge of success, is to make knowledge again what it has always been. Knowledge is what students learn, and therefore what does it mean for the substance, what does it mean for the transmission, what does it mean for the application? And these are the things that we have not given much thought to, if any, because we are much too busy to grow.

I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that higher education has become a mature industry. That's both true and false. It is true in the sense that everybody goes to college. It is false in the sense that the greatest constituency for what we can offer are no longer the young. The greatest gross opportunity, and that is not mature, are highly--well, highly schooled and very poorly educated adults. And these are the challenges for the generation, for the definition of knowledge, for it's generation, for it's transmission, and for it's application. And I have talked a little longer than I should have, Jerry. My apologies. But I hope I made a little sense. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.



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Last modified:  8 January 1998