Around 830 AD the Benedictine monk and later Abbot Lupus Servatus, then living in Fulda, Germany, wrote the following in a letter to a close and learned friend: ‘Mihi satis apparent propter se ipsam appetenda sapientia.’ There are nuances in the original Latin, but the sentence has generally been translated as ‘It is quite apparent to me that knowledge should be sought for its own sake.’ Based in large part on this letter, Lupus has often been seen as the father of the humanist intellectual tradition, and the statement quoted above has been repeated and endorsed by many others, including Nietzsche and Albert Einstein. Many of those arguing for and defending a more traditional outlook on higher education repeat the formula.
In fact, the idea of ‘knowledge for its own sake’ has for many become the key test of higher education policy and strategy, suggesting a higher commitment to the integrity and independence of learning and scholarship; and often placed in opposition to a more impact-oriented or use-directed application of knowledge. But this affects not just higher education policy, but also the appropriateness and legitimacy of the strategic direction of some universities, and perhaps of certain academic disciplines or projects.
I confess that I don’t find this useful. For me, ‘knowledge for its own sake’ is a curiously empty formula, suggesting a metaphysical approach to knowledge that accords it importance without apparently knowing why. I believe strongly in the acquisition, discovery and dissemination of knowledge, but not for its own sake (which to me means nothing), but because knowledge empowers, civilises and innovates. The value of knowledge is in no way mysterious, it is compelling and clear. The case for learning is a much stronger one if its use can be explained clearly. ‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than ‘spinach for its own sake’ would be as a nutritional one.
What some who support a traditional outlook on higher education may not appreciate is that a formula such as this may have been persuasive when education and knowledge were largely the property of a social elite who had no need to justify what they were doing. Today’s society needs something more, and there is plenty to give. High value knowledge is at the root of social progress, inclusiveness, economic growth, better health, a higher quality of life. Universities need to be willing to associate themselves with such objectives and ideals, rather than arguing a much more opaque case based on a hoped for but not specifically targeted benefit flowing from detached learning and scholarship.
It may be time not just to modernise our higher education system, but also our understanding of why we do it.