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The Knowledge Economy and end of the inherent vs instrumental value conflict in education

The Knowledge Economy is the future of the world economy,’ professional services firm Deloitte announced in their report of February last year.

What is a ‘knowledge economy’? Safe to say we do not yet understand it very well. The Wikipedia page needs a lot of work. However, it seems that many of the richer countries in the world now ‘exist within’ such economies or perhaps ‘are’ such economies, if that does not grant too much existential priority to the notion of economics.

Perhaps the knowledge economy is easiest to define in terms of what it is not: it is not an economy that relies on making material things, growing things or digging things out of the ground and selling them. Some people think this is bad and dangerous – a house of cards, a castle in the air. They may be right: such assets do appear to be more volatile than material commodities.

More positively, but still somewhat vaguely, we might define a knowledge economy as one based on computer systems and the work of highly educated people interacting with and through these systems. What do people do in such an economy? There seem to be countless particular examples: ‘I advise clients on the best platform interface for their retail arm’; ‘I work with the information architecture department on stakeholder expectations’; ‘I use social to source and manage carers in my community’ etc. How much of your day is spent interacting with or through some kind of technology, not making anything tangible?

Because there are few generalisations we can make about this wide range of jobs, we tend to lump them all into ‘services’. According to the Office of National Statistics about 80% of workers in the UK are currently in services. Can an economy really run on 80% of ‘people helping other people’ in some way? But in case this seems preposterous, imagine an early 20th century industrialist explaining the workings of a factory to a Medieval farmer: the whole shebang of capital, finance, engineering, labour, management etc. You do what? our bemused farmer would ask. How can that work? Sometimes only historical perspective allows us to grasp social changes, and we do not yet have this perspective on contemporary work.


These facts about knowledge work and service industries contribute to a blurring of the line between two classical positions on the value of education: the ‘inherent value’ position and the ‘instrumental value’ position. The sometimes hostile stand-off between those who think the emphasis in education should be on its value as an inherent good and those who think the values should be more instrumental and connected to future employment begin to melt away when one considers the sort of things that are required to succeed in this new world of work. Countless business analysts, HR consultants and recruiters tell us that what you need to get a job and have a good working life in the knowledge economy are things like ‘creativity’, ‘curiosity’, ‘adaptability’ ‘an open mind’, ‘ability to learn’, and so on. And these sound rather like things with inherent value.

The debate about inherent vs instrumental values is traceable at least to the Roman orator Cicero in Ancient Rome. 

It is a fair bet that he was not thinking much about a knowledge economy when he discussed, in his great work De Oratore, the virtues of a broader education which came to be known as the artes liberales (Liberal Arts). For Cicero, the Liberal Arts were those things studied by a free person (liberales has the same root as ‘liberty’). This was education for one who was not enslaved, and there is certainly a sense in which these arts are to be studied for their own sake, or at least for the cultivation of personal qualities like virtue rather than more obvious wordly success. However, it cannot be overlooked that the main purpose of such an education for Cicero is to prepare excellent and worthy orators and advocates – those who will serve in some legal or political capacity – and that therefore a broad and liberal education is deemed also to have a strongly instrumental value.

In the early universities, too, in Bologna, Paris, Oxbridge and elsewhere the emphasis was largely on educating lawyers and clergy. And despite our romantic view of the Renaissance and the brilliant artistic flourishing of Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and their peers, modern scholarship shows that the humanistic education of the time had a strongly instrumentalist flavour and was inculcated to advise and serve the brilliant statesmen of the time in matters of the new arts and sciences. However, somewhere during the long period between the founding of universities and the so-called ‘period of the revolutions’ of the 17th and 18th centuries, a split developed and a good deal of university learning lost its relevance to the outside world, especially with regard to developments in science and technology. Thus Francis Bacon, the great English early philosopher of science wrote, in 1620: ‘In…schools, academies, colleges… everything is found adverse to the progress of science…For the studies of men in these places are…imprisoned in the writings of certain [ancient] authors’. And over 100 years after this, the French philosopher Voltaire could write ‘a university is an institution confined by scholasticism’. Of course this is a simplified picture, but over centuries universities had become increasingly divorced both from the excitement of new intellectual worlds and – perhaps consequently – the main drivers of economic development.

Only with the rise of the Humboldt University in Berlin and the more technical schools in France did higher education manage, in the 19th Century, to incorporate more fully science, technology and other things that had by then been revolutionising the world for some time. And then we had the explosion of higher education throughout the world in the 20th century.

Now graduates are pouring out of universities and, in many late capitalist countries, they are entering a knowledge economy. There are, of course, many reasonable doubts that there will enough jobs for these graduates. For that, we can only wait and see. Perhaps because of this anxiety and because we understand the knowledge economy so little, there are also calls for a ‘return to manufacturing’. ‘Maker movements’ are another interesting manifestation of a desire to return to the concrete and tangible, to produce objects with aesthetic quality and personal input. These are certainly interesting ideas. They stir something in us of the ancient value of making things with our hands; at the luxury end of the market one can see how such objects may command high prices in the near future. It is hard to imagine, however, that the major trend of the last 150 years away from manufacturing and towards services in the richer economies will be radically turned around whilst manual labour is cheaper elsewhere in the world.

What, then, should our millions of graduates study? What kind of education equips them in some way for the rest of their life in this world? What ‘habits of mind’, as a classical scholar might have said, should they possess: what attributes? Where does the ‘inherent vs instrumental value of education’ debate go in this new social reality? And how can universities play a part in these questions?

Well, whatever this knowledge economy is there are many who argue that we will need different skills, knowledge and attributes to function in this economy. This seems reasonable, at least in the abstract. Workers in the past needed different skills as they moved from the land, into factories and then into offices; and we are now moving out of offices and – at least metaphorically – online, into clouds and virtual worlds, connected in ways that were barely imaginable 30 years ago. For the modern worker in the knowledge economy there is widespread talk of a need for ‘passion’, ‘creativity’, ‘the ability to share knowledge’, ‘the capacity to seek, curate and sense-make’, ‘the ability to empathise’ and so on.

This type of ‘knowledge’ – though in some ways we struggle even to call it so, as much of it is not like the sort of thing we have called ‘knowledge’ before – this knowledge that we are now urged to acquire, comes closer to the classical idea of knowledge for the ‘free man’ than we have seen for many centuries. Those who are oppressed and enslaved in drudgery are not expected to show ‘creativity’ and it would be absurd to require them to show ‘passion’ for their work or ‘intrinsic motivation’.

I do not claim that Cicero would necessarily have championed emotional intelligence or sense-making in precisely the way of a business guru like John Hagel, but the spirit is closer than one might think. Both see education as connected with freedom, and both, to some extent, see an intersection between education, freedom and work. Both see a cultivation of the spirit, one might even say the soul, as important, and both are happy to see such cultivation as integral to a successful working life, not solely for some intrinsic good.

So, as often in history, we see old ideas returning with, of course, modifications in order to fit new contexts. For those fortunate enough to work in the knowledge economy there is a diminishing of the historic dichotomy between the inherent value of education and the instrumental. Like other dated dichotomies (the disingenuous contrasting of ‘public’ and ‘private’ in political debate is another) this one is blurring into meaninglessness. We need to educate ourselves as free people precisely because it is the sorts of inherent qualities cultivated by the best education that will fit us best for our working lives. We should educate ourselves in the best that has been thought and said – and in science, and in mathematics, engineering and other things besides – both because it is interesting in itself and because such an education prepares us best for employment in our new economies.

What, then, would be the modern conception of Liberal Arts, that universal education conceived by the ancients, which would give us a shot at this? What would be the best for us as unenslaved people in a knowledge economy?

The first thing to point out is that a modern conception of Liberal Arts must not mean just ‘arts’ or ‘humanities’. For this reason I prefer to call it Arts and Sciences. The unfortunate split between science and non-science is perhaps particularly bad in this land of the Two Cultures, but the US has had some pretty miserable spats over these matters in recent years as well. Here we could take a cue from the ancients, for whom the ‘arts’ were as much about the leading science and mathematics of the day as they were about literature or history. There is nothing to stop us educating ourselves again in both arts and sciences – or to continuing these joint interests throughout our lives. It is surely obvious that these days it is hard to live a life untouched by science, so as much science and mathematics as we can muster will certainly serve us well both at work and in our understanding of the world. Of course, this is not to say that science has priority. The world is impoverished if scientists are ignorant of the history or cultural aspects of their disciplines. And when scientists dismiss or attempt to minimize the political and ethical value of the humanities or social sciences it can have dangerous consequences. Each of us will come down somewhere different along this humanities-social science-science spectrum, but we need both arts and sciences – in the modern meaning of these words – to best educate ourselves and to prepare for our working lives. This is what the best liberal arts and sciences education can provide and what universities should aim to offer.

For Cicero, all the arts and sciences were ‘attendants and handmaids’ for a noble career as an orator; it is hard to see today’s business leaders saying anything less for careers in the knowledge economy.

In the next blog I’ll address the misplaced notion that a liberal arts and sciences education does not lead to ‘specialisation’ and has therefore less instrumental value in the knowledge economy.

Photos via Creative Commons, free license

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