With Friends Like These: Against the AAUP “Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education”

by Joseph Shieber

It is a great shame that the authors of the recently released AAUP statement “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education” do not even know what it is that they are attempting to defend. And it is the height of irony that, in an essay attempting to defend the importance of expert knowledge, the authors of the AAUP would be so cavalier in their rejection of expert knowledge about the very subject of their defense, namely knowledge itself.

The authors of the AAUP report have a laudable goal in mind. They seek to defend the importance of, as they put it, “the disciplines and institutions that produce and transmit … knowledge”.

The authors correctly note that recent critics of higher education mistakenly confuse the teaching and research conducted at colleges and universities with indoctrination. They quote the current United States Secretary of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, who exhorted college students to “fight against the education establishment”. “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans,” DeVos warned the students, “tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”

Although they aren’t terribly clear, it would seem that the AAUP report authors push back against DeVos’s conflation of education with indoctrination on the basis of three important qualities of research and education at higher education institutions:

1. College and university professors develop and transmit valuable thinking methods and skills — examples that the authors cite include learning how to “solve differential equations”, “to predict the path of a hurricane”, “to track the epidemic of opioid addiction”, “to study the impact of tariffs on the economy”.
2. College and university professors discover and disseminate factual information — examples that the authors cite include “the principles of quantum mechanics”, “the somatic effects of nicotine”, and “the history of slavery and Jim Crow, or the history of the Holocaust”.
3. In addition to those discipline-specific thinking methods and bodies of factual information, college and university professors also inculcate in students an appreciation for the methods of investigation appropriate to knowledge-seeking, which the authors characterize as “informed, dispassionate investigation”.

So far, so good! If the authors of the AAUP report had stopped here, they would have done higher education — and, indeed, the general public who derive so much from the fruits of higher education — a great service.

Unfortunately, they didn’t stop here.

They then, in a statement committed to the defense of disciplinary expertise and the value of research, blithely dismissed the value of disciplinary expertise when it comes to the analysis of knowledge. Here’s their nod to the disciplinary expertise of philosophers: “There are, of course, endless philosophical debates about the meaning of ‘knowledge.'”

That’s it.

Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so bad if the working definition of “knowledge” that the AAUP writers had come up with was any good. Unfortunately, their definition is an abject failure. Here’s why.

Here’s the definition, in its entirety:

For our purposes … we need define [knowledge] only as those understandings of the world upon which we rely because they are produced by the best methods at our disposal.

Now, if the authors of the AAUP statement had consulted a single disciplinary expert on the definition of “knowledge”, they would have known that, despite “endless philosophical debates”, there is remarkable agreement among philosophers about certain features of knowledge. (In fact, there is probably at least as much agreement about those features as there is among climate scientists about the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change, or among epidemiologists about the lack of a causal role for vaccines in the prevalence of autism among the population.)

Paramount among those features of knowledge is this one. Knowledge entails truth. In other words, if you know something, then what you know is true.

The philosophical consensus actually comports very well with our everyday understanding of knowledge.

Suppose you tell someone, “I know who founded the Mughal Empire. It was Akbar.”

Suppose they then correct you and say, “Actually, Babur founded the Mughal Empire.”

You can’t then respond, “Well, I knew that Akbar founded the Mughal Empire, but I was wrong.” Instead, you would say something like, “Well, I thought I knew who founded the Mughal Empire, but I was mistaken.”

In other words, even the implicit command of “knowledge” contains the kernel of understanding that knowledge requires truth. If you believe something that’s false — even if you’re very confident of your belief, and even if you believe it on the basis of very strong evidence — then you still don’t know it. And this is why it’s abject nonsense for the authors of the AAUP report to write, “Such knowledge may in the end prove accurate or inaccurate”; if it’s genuine knowledge, it CAN’T prove inaccurate.

You might be wondering why this matters. Why not just use the working definition that the authors of the AAUP statement settled on?

Well, recall that the point of the statement in defense of knowledge is to defend the value of the sort of expertise that is developed and transmitted at institutions of higher learning.

With that in mind, look at this part of the definition of “knowledge” employed by the drafters of the statement: “they are produced by the best methods at our disposal”.

What makes the methods that are, according to the AAUP authors, part of the very definition of “knowledge” the “best methods”?

According to the AAUP statement, what makes them the best methods is that the experts agree that they’re the best methods: “The dialogue that produces expert knowledge occurs among those who are qualified by virtue of their training, education, and disciplinary practice.”

So, let’s see what the drafters of the statement are arguing — and remember, they’re arguing against those who claim that college and university researchers are merely indocrinating students in elitist ways of thinking with no underlying justification for commanding belief.

The drafters of the AAUP statement are, in effect, arguing that we should value “understandings of the world” produced by experts because experts tell us that we should value them.

As an argument intended to convince, that’s a disaster.

This is all the more saddening, because this disaster could have been so easily avoided. All that the writers of the AAUP statement would have needed to do is to consult an expert!

Here are two easy ways that the statement could have been improved.

First, the statement could have noted the distinction between know-how (or practical knowledge) and knowledge-that (or factual knowledge).

If I know how to evaluate proofs in quantified modal logic, or how to speak Shanghainese, or how to analyze a dataset in R, then it’s not so much that I possess a particular body of factual knowledge. Instead, I possess a certain sort of skill — the very sort of skill to which the authors of the AAUP statement appeal in the first defense of higher education that I attributed to them.

Note that know-how is not the sort of thing that can be called true or false. You either have the ability, or you don’t — although of course there are degrees of skill.

One reason why it would have been an improvement to include know-how in the defense of knowledge is that know-how would allow the defense of knowledge to extend to some disciplines that many people are uneasy to include within the umbrella of disciplines that discover factual information.

So even if you don’t think that creative writing, or music composition, or theater involve discoveries of factual knowledge (and note that I’m not necessarily endorsing this view!), you could still grant that there is know-how involved in, say, writing a villanelle, or arranging a piece in eight-part harmony, or conveying a particular emotion onstage.

(For much more on know-how, see lecture 16 of my Theories of Knowledge, or this excellent survey article.)

Second, the statement could have included facts or truth in the definition of factual knowledge, reflecting not only the overwhelming philosophical consensus but also common usage of “knowledge”.

The importance of this is that it can strengthen the argument that the AAUP writers offer in defense of knowledge. Knowledge is important because — in the case of factual knowledge — it involves FACTS. In the words of John Adams — words that the AAUP writers quote in their statement — “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

This definition of factual knowledge, in contrast to the definition offered by the AAUP drafters, would allow us to provide a non-circular defense of expertise as involving “the best methods at our disposal”. This is because, with the improved definition of factual knowledge, we can define “best methods” as “those methods most likely to yield (factual) knowledge”, rather than simply as “those methods that the experts endorse”.

(For much more on the value of true beliefs, see lecture 2 of my Theories of Knowledge, or this excellent discussion.)

In this age of “post-truth”, “alternative facts”, and government-sponsored assaults on expertise, the value of higher education research and teaching has never been more in need of a strong defense. It is a shame that, when the AAUP deputized a committee of scholars to draft such a defense, the members of the committee failed themselves — and us — by ignoring the value of expertise.