Higher Education in the Information Age

Research: Knowledge Generation in the Global Information Age

Question and Answer
Jerry Wind, Moderator


Wind: Thank you Peter. Given this provocative initial kind of opening remarks by Peter, let me suggest that we take about five minutes and get ourselves in small groups. Kind of turn around, create small groups of about four people each, and try to identify what are the critical issues that face us in this area of knowledge generation, given Peter's introductory comment. And then each group to try to come with at least one question, succinct question, to Peter. I'll get the questions then from you and we'll try to consolidate them and let Peter address a few of the critical issues facing us. So if you can turn around and kind of give everyone in a sense an opportunity to participate here, reflecting on Peter's provocative comments as well as the issues as you see them.


Wind: O.K. Ladies and Gentlemen, if we can turn back and if we can hear from each of the teams the one question you would like to address to Peter Drucker. Who would like to go first? Shimon?

Audience Member (Shimon Schocken): You suggested in your very eloquent presentation that in the future some scholars, or professors as we used to call them, will engage in teaching and others will engage in research, and these will not necessarily be the same individuals. My question to you is: is there a third activity, other than research and teaching that perhaps has been eluding us that could enable an instructor to grow intellectually, to expand his mind or her mind, and to flex his or her intellectual muscles without actually engaging in what we used to call research? And a related question regards the very definition of knowledge. There has been some discussion in our group. We're not sure that we fully understand the definition of knowledge, but if the definition of knowledge is learning how to learn, how can an instructor who doesn't do any research impart this expertise on his or her students?

Wind: O.K. Yes. Michael.

Audience Member (Michael Lesk): Doesn't the Internet make possible doing first rate research in many places so that any concentration of research will in fact break down in the future? I certainly find in computer science all sorts of people doing good research in a wide variety of places.

Wind: Thank you. So again the issue here of the Internet viz. a viz. the concentration that Peter was talking about. Charles.

Audience Member (Charles Phelps): Our group was somewhat puzzled as Shimon's was about the definition of knowledge. As we understood it at least it seemed that you're saying knowledge is that which can be held and understood by a well-educated individual. That seems to decry the value of the specialization. Your first comments about the results of research concentrating done into a hands of a few suggests here correctly a belief that specialization is a force. But your second definition says that knowledge is that which can be held by a single individual rather than saying knowledge is that which can be held by society collectively. And that seems like it's internally inconsistent. So I would pose that as a question: can you make those two concepts internally consistent?

Audience Member: Our group had a similar problem with what we saw as maybe not a contradiction, but in the spirit of this morning, a healthy tension. Specialization at the beginning of your talk seemed to be something inevitable, but by the end there was the return to view the general knowledge, the ability of an engineer to understand the context or broader sorts of knowledge. We were not certain whether that was nostalgia or the basis for some hope for the future, and if there is some way to fight against the tendencies of specialization, does information technology offer us some help in that regard?br>

Wind: Thank you. What about this side of the room? Yes, Jim?

Audience Member (James O'Donnell): Our group was provoked by your speculation that the current research structure would not have been tolerated in the 1930's. Given the centrality of research to individual careers, institutional rankings, institutional financial health, how would you propose to express that intolerance in the 1990's?

Audience Member: Our group, while feeling that there does have to be more division of labor in research strengths among universities, we're wondering how really the process of determining where the best work is going on, let's say in a field like art history, might actually proceed. What is the basis really of such judgments? And we also had the same questions that came up about the democratizing tendency of the Internet in research as well as in teaching at all levels and this narrowing of what might be called significant research, which might be more difficult to identify in some fields than others. And also the whole issue of the relationship between teaching and research came up.

Wind: Thank you. Yes, please.

Audience Member: As best we could tell, this business about knowledge, general knowledge of an individual learner, seemed to be almost a harking back to sort of classic liberal education with a core humanities exposure to the various sciences and social sciences and the like in almost a very traditional sense of what liberal education is all about, and that may be what we think you're trying to reestablish as the knowledge that needs to go forward.

Wind: Thank you. Any other? Mark.

Audience Member (Mark Wrighton): In our short group session, we thought about the consolidation of research institutions that were suggested or implied, and I noted that in 1987 there was a revolution in material science in the area of high temperature super conductivity. And there were a couple of things that were remarkable about that. One is that the announcement of high temperature super conductors in ceramics was not made at MIT or Harvard or any one of the premier universities in America, rather at another institution. But as soon as that announcement was made, a large number of very high quality investigators, both in industry--many of whom were educated at universities--and in the universities, were able to aggressively jump on that and make amazingly rapid progress. And even there, many of the lead investigators at the outset were not our premier research universities. I would note, for example, the University of Houston played a critical role for example. Second, another kind of revolution that was announced but was rapidly debunked was the announcement of cold fusion. And in that regard as well, in very short order all around the world people were able to move into that with a very thoughtful, analytical approach and clarify what had been anticipated as a major revolution in energy production.

Wind: Just an interesting comment on this is that if you look at business in general, quite typical: most breakthrough innovations come from outside the dominant firms in a given industry, but rather from outside. So it shouldn't be surprising that we find this also in academia. Peter, there are--obviously you triggered a variety of reactions. Let me suggest, if I may, that we start perhaps with the question of the definition of knowledge that kind of underlines a lot of the questions here, and if you could comment a little more on how you see the definition of knowledge.

Drucker: Thank you, Jerry, and my warmest thanks for the ladies and gentlemen who posed dissent and questions, and all I can say is that, unlike Ayn Rand, I'm not gifted with the ability to foresee the future and I won't try it. And you won't ask me to foresee the future. But let me see what we can, I won't say rule out with high probability, but what is quite unlikely. I don't believe that it would be either desirable nor the right way to go the way the Germans and the Russians have gone and create separate research institutes divorced from the university. And that is the way these two countries went, and successfully by the way, but I don't think it fits the American structure of education. From the beginning we have looked to the college and the university as a comprehensive institution. We do have a few separate schools of technology but most--all state universities have an engineering school. That's not the European mode. So I think we will continue to look to the university as the integrating institution.

But I think economics alone are already forcing us to concentrate. Take a field in which I happen to know a good deal, considered a--I wouldn't say a pro, I'm not, but a good amateur. Take higher mathematics. There are very few places in the world today that can afford the critical mass you need to have an outstanding mathematics department that generates new mathematical knowledge. A critical mass is too big. It's very big. The same is probably true of art history, another field in which I've taught. And I think economics alone may push us towards deciding: here in this university we are going to build an outstanding department in such and such, and in other areas we do enough to satisfy or perhaps not even that. We don't have to. They'll bring the information in and that we don't have to do on campus. And I think we're beginning to see that.

And you're beginning to see that while those specialists in superconductivity were all over the map, they were all part of what I would call "the superconductivity club". I happened to look at that phenomenon, and everyone who did work on it or everyone who did work on cold fusion was a member of that club. They parked their car in a different parking lot, their paycheck has a different P.O. on it, but they basically were a very small group. And if they weren't, they wouldn't have been listened to. They wouldn't have been respected. It's a very--in those fields we have become very elitist. I'm not saying it's good. I'm simply reporting.

So I think that economics alone--take that brilliant physicist who got a very lucrative offer from a famous university and turned it down because there are not enough first rate physicists there whom he respects. He said he's paid well enough where there is the critical mass. And it's beginning to go that way. Not the separate institutions. We don't need that anymore. We have the communications means. The Kaiser Wilhelm researchers of the Max Frank Institute now were formed in 19--make it 1911 my memory says--so that the people who are in a given area know each other and can work together. And it has worked. Whether it still works ever, maybe. Now we don't need it. But we have the equivalent to that Max Frank Institute in particle physics with those 30 or 40 people in different places are in daily contact or almost daily contact and also travel all the time and talk to each other.

I think this is one of the tough challenges. How do we maintain our competence so that we can be effective in our area and especially in developing people who can teach not only undergraduates, but teach adults and children and yet be basically a conveyer rather than a generator? But I think we are being pushed in that direction. Both by specialization and by economics. How to do it I don't know yet , except that when I taught art history on the side in the Claremont Colleges for six years I did not go to the art historians in the Claremont Colleges. I took the telephone and called up somebody at Harvard or Princeton or London. And I belonged, in oriental art, to a very small fraternity where everybody knows everybody. I was a fellow traveler. I was not a full member. They knew it. I didn't generate much new knowledge. But I didn't go to the people in the next building, not because I didn't like them, but because they were not oriental arts historians. And that's already happening and whether you like it or not--and I don't like it--it's irrelevant. It's happening.

And when it comes to making it possible for the technology we have to have impact on the students--here is that master teacher, and I bring him into my seventh grade classroom, and I'm talking quite specifically of a specific ninth grade classroom. And that master--in an elite school for science and technology in Illinois. And when they brought the master teacher in he was a flop simply because he didn't have the material. These were all hand picked students who in 8th grade got an SAT score in mathematics of 800. It's Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. And that master teacher didn't work because he doesn't have the material. And so the generation of knowledge includes the generation of material that is not condescending, is not popularization, but is yet within the grasp of a 15 year old. In other words the same is true-I've built three executive management programs, and my problem has never been to find good teachers but to find teachers who can create the material that gets across to that Catholic Bishop I have in my executive management program who for the first time manages a Diocese after having been a theologian in Rome for 30 years. Those are the challenges we have. And I don't know how to do it. I only know it's got to be done.

And the last thing I would say perhaps to these questions is that , whether we like it or not, the fact that higher education, education altogether--the expense has become uncontrollable. It's risen at least two times faster than inflation, maybe more like three times without any discernible results, and that is a clear sign that a fundamental structural change is bound to come. We have lost control. We don't understand it Where do you begin? We are spending money, and great deals of money, without results. In elementary education, in education in junior high school, in high school, and I don't think it can begin there. I think it has to begin in the university precisely because that is where the leadership lies. Here is that instructor in the undergraduate colleges of which my graduate school is a partner-excellent teachers. Not one of them has done any research. They are paid for the excellence of their teaching and I don't see--even in our first rate engineering school there isn't much.

Is there really a relationship between research and teaching ability? The evidence bluntly is very, very dubious. But there is a strong, a very strong evidence, between working hard at making advanced material accessible to that 19 year old who has no background. And the top flight instructors of our 650 faculty members have been here 21 years--I think I know them--work very hard on converting research into knowledge. They have not been taught to do that and very few do it. Of the 600, maybe 25, maybe 30. Every student in our college knows who they are. Every student tries to take a course with them. There is no discipline for that. But I see no correlation between undergraduate or high school teaching and research at all. I think this is not disproven. It just hasn't been proven. Some first rate researcher, take Enrico Fermi, was a great teacher of the ignorant. Feynman could not teach the ignorant. And there is no correlation. There is need for a new discipline which is to convey new facts, new information, into knowledge so that it can be taught and learned. And I don't think that's--that's what the good instructor does whether he teaches Dante like a wonderful teacher whom I once knew who is long retired at Oberlin, or whether he teaches history, or whether he teaches chemistry. I think this is not a faculty we in academia yet esteem. Maybe I count myself among those that have worked at it. With what success is another matter.

We have to accept that with 500,000 college professors which instead of say 60,000 we had in 1936, more than ten fold expansion, that we cannot depend on the natural who can--and we have learned that there is no relationship at all within research and staying alive as a teacher. None at all, alas. We hoped so. It hasn't been proven. We have to develop a new discipline.

Wind: Peter, let me interrupt you for a minute. I think you've made a compelling argument for the need for a focus on the translation of research into knowledge, communicable knowledge to the students, but one of the major problems we have in the research area is the fact that, increasingly, a lot of the research in many of the areas is done outside the university by corporations in other areas--that if you look at the market demand for knowledge, it focuses more and more on global knowledge, interdisciplinary knowledge, on new disciplines that are emerging here. You see too much of the current research being trivial "me too" research with minor improvement over previous research, as opposed to breakthrough innovative research. If you had to conclude your comments and address to this distinguished group with your thoughts on what can be done to make research more innovative, more impactful, more relevant, what would you suggest to these university presidents?

Drucker: Well, first let me say that it's quite clear that in many areas the university no longer has a monopoly or no longer should have it. That you see growing corporations in a great many fields, not just in the physical or not just the hard sciences, and I think it's a good sign. And I hope we will overcome the snobbish distinction between the pure research of the academician and the applied research of the fellow who is paid by a corporation, which is pure snobbery and has been disproven. There is no discipline any more in which there is pure science and application. The two have melded, and if they are not being melded there is nothing. And that goes--things we did--I didn't discuss--you discussed them in your sessions. But your main question, which is how we then pull this together.

I think this is a new major function of the university, not the same thing as the traditional Ph.D., though the degree will probably, I hope, will remain. I hope we aren't going to invent more degrees. How to make the people whose job it is to make knowledge a resource and an asset, both to society and even more to the individual, who are not the researchers? How to give them and use the modern tools we have, which are incredible resources for teaching? All I can say is it took 200 years for the printed book to have an impact on the school to create the modern school. I don't think we have 200 years. I think we have 25 at most, and I think the big challenge to the university president, who alas has spent his or her last 30 years raising money rather than giving academic leadership...

Wind: Peter, I'm afraid that our satellite time is up, and we will have to close this here. I'm sorry that one of the constraints of technology is that we don't have the flexibility to continue the discussion and benefit from your thoughts. But on behalf of the entire group, let me thank you for sharing with us your provocative thoughts.

I know that many of you may feel a little frustrated that we have not been able to cover all the topics in this extremely rich and important area of generating knowledge and the implication of the global information age to this important topic. I hope that the discussion and some of the provocative thought that Peter had in terms of the research universities, the consolidation of universities, and the like will at least provoke us to think more creatively about how can we retain the value of the traditional research university in this very important area, by addressing the issues that unfortunately we did not hear kind of toward the end, but in terms of given the globalization, given the need for interdisciplinary research, given the need for collaboration with research done outside the traditional university, capitalizing on the network, addressing some of the creative suggestions implied by some of the questions you had in terms of new types of research and the like. And I hope that all of you will be able to identify a set of action plans for yourself, leading to better solutions in this very important area. Thank you very much. Greg.

Farrington: Are we out of touch with the west coast? Then I can say anything without fear of going out on the satellite! We will now end as they say. We began some time ago. We will now end. Before we end though, I do want to point out a couple of people who have been awfully important to this undertaking. In thinking about this ahead of time it was pretty clear that all we need is a conference about technology and have it go down on the technology. So we have one of Penn's best, Gates Rhodes and his staff in the back. I can't begin to tell you how obsessive Gates is. He's exactly the kind of guy you want to run all these microphones and make sure that the telephones work and that Peter Drucker both comes on and goes off at the right time...



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Last modified:  8 January 1998