But there is one final piece of the puzzle of higher education. If the university is sinking into irrelevance, and if the student is disappearing from view, so, too, the subject matter of education is evaporating, leaving only the informational dregs of what once were living subjects. If, as I said above, we've been reconceiving education as the transfer of information from one database or brain to another, this is because what passes for knowledge within the various disciplines has more and more been reduced to the kind of decontextualized fact fit for such transfer.
This is a huge assertion as huge as the entire range of academic subjects. I can hardly justify it here. All I can essay now is to point at one particular symptom of the denaturing of what we call "knowledge." The world we ought to be engaging has disappeared behind a tissue of brittle, yes-or-no abstractions. Just as we have ignored the student in favor of an array of measurements, so also we have turned our faces away from the world itself, as qualitatively given the world that might, unnervingly, speak to us. From the scientist's instrumentation to the sociologist's surveys, we have perfected the means for ignoring the immediate, expressive presence of the people and the natural phenomena around us, and therefore we have no meaningful context in which to anchor our swelling cascades of data.
If the efficient transfer of information is what educational institutions are all about, and if measuring the transfer of information is what credentials and certification are all about, and if gaining information in the first place is what the various academic disciplines are all about, then you'd think we must have some reasonable understanding of information. What is this stuff we are so busy gaining and transferring and measuring?
A few years ago I opened an address to over five hundred librarians in Washington, D.C., by asking, "Can anyone here tell me what information is?" Seeing no takers, I asked how many in the audience, given several minutes to think, imagined they could write down a serviceable definition of "information." Not a single hand was raised.
Subsequently I put the same question to over three hundred librarians in Calgary, Alberta, and again no one raised a hand. Surely this should provoke some reflection in us (as I think it did in many of those remarkably good-humored and sensible librarians). Anyone looking at the contemporary educational scene with its ceaseless invocations of information as the source of enlightenment, empowerment, and efficiency is fully entitled to stand up and shout: "What the hell is going on?"
Instead of this, however, an official respondent to one of my talks ventured this remark:
What's the problem? We all know what information is. It's the stuff our users need.
Unfortunately, this doesn't quite do it. Coal miners, McDonald's employees, and dentists are also in the business of providing what their customers need. Does this make them information workers?
Actually, though, I think the respondent came as close as one can come to the substance of the prevailing usage: information is "stuff" whatever that is. Which makes him, I suppose, a stuff worker, and our age the Age of Stuff.
But there's another side to information, represented by the prestigious halo it has borrowed from the technical theory of information. The problem here is that, by design, the theory's purely statistical formulations exclude content and meaning. In terms of the theory, that is, information doesn't have any meaningful content at all. The theory is simply not concerned with content which is why it can bring perfect mathematical precision to its analyses.
So we have a notion of information that is so vague and all-encompassing that it means just about everything "stuff." And we have a companion notion that parades wonderful precision by abandoning all consideration of content. Should we wonder that the institutions aspiring to train tomorrow's "information workers" lack any profound sense of their own mission?
Perhaps you think I exaggerate the confusion surrounding information. If so, just look at one of the fields where the concept of information figures most centrally: genetics. Science historian Lily Kay has documented the "contradictions, misapplications, slippages, circularities, and aporias in the usages of the concepts of information, message, code, and language" within genetic research "problems acknowledged already in the 1950s." By 1968, she points out,
The genome had become (erroneously, from a technical standpoint) an information system, an authorless book of life written in a speechless DNA language. (Kay 1998)
This misleading and completely obscure usage has gone a long way toward convincing the public that genetic engineers actually know what they're doing when they juggle and splice snippets of genetic "code." After all, the code is being "deciphered," yielding its precise content of "information" isn't it? And aren't we already experts at information processing moving bits of information around in a sensible fashion?
As any honest genetic engineer will tell you, the problem of understanding gene expression how specific genetic alterations will actually affect an organism is one we scarcely have a clue about today. The work proceeds, but it's largely trial and error. All the information talk only obscures this fact, in addition to being the purest gibberish in its own terms.
A penchant for gibberish is not exactly what one hopes for in those who propose to rewrite our genetic destinies. Nor is it what one hopes for in the academy. But, when it comes to the presumed informational core of the academic mission, gibberish is what we have. Recognizing this fact seems to me the first step in re-visioning education. I don't see any hope for educational reform until we can either get some reasonable clarity into our information talk, or else abandon it.