The Rise of Content

Universities used to be about thinking. Content was taught and ideas researched, but the primary purpose of the University was to provide a place to  think, ponder, and use the power of rational thought to make sense of the world around us. Over the centuries, empiricism slowly replaced rationalism as our primary source of belief, with the scientific method reigning supreme. I don’t have a problem with using evidence to explain the world around us, but the problem is that evidence and data have pushed all other sources of belief aside. Shouldn’t we slow down and use our rational thought processes to understand the world? Shouldn’t we take time to think?

Data and evidence are useful, no, more that useful – imperative in understanding the world around us, but without deep rational thinking, evidence and data are nothing more than information. The metrification of the research process, along with the massification of higher education, has led to the speed up of information generation without the slower, rational thinking that is necessary to change the new information into knowledge and understanding.

Y Archives - 1962 - two men debate on a stage ...
Debate (Photo credit: universityymca)

When the amount of information about a topic was smaller, a person could be expected to become a real expert about a general field of knowledge, and the purpose of teaching students for three or four years was to ground them in the topic with enough information that, for some of the students at least, they could continue to explore and think about the topic and enrich our understanding of the world. Discussion, debate, questions and thinking played a prominent role in our centres of knowledge. Spaces were built to think in and interact with others in the process. Social spaces were a part of the infrastructure, and the social spaces were comfortable and easy to get lost in when debating, discussing and thinking about a topic or issue. Scholars were expected to spend a great deal of time thinking and debating points as a part of a scholarly life. Students were a part of that equation – learning to think and understand. A creative piece of work was celebrated, and initiative was admired.

And then we forgot. We forgot about the importance of rational thinking, discussion and debate. Today we celebrate the arrival of social learning environments as if they were something new and exciting. Compared to the smoke filled, Senior Common Room filled with overstuffed furniture and overstuffed bookshelves,

The Senior Common Room at Keble College, Oxfor...
The Senior Common Room at Keble College, Oxford, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

our new, virtual social learning environments are sterile spaces where we engage in asynchronous discussions and throw ideas (with fewer than 140 characters) around to stimulate thought. We fill our time with grant applications, number crunching, marking, paper writing, powerpoint preparation, formal meetings, form filling, and journal reading. We think a lot – about the rise in student numbers, the ping of our e-mail, learning outcomes, data output, formulating arguments for our latest publication, and texting our friend around the corner about catching a quick lunch. We have forgotten about deep thinking and debating.

Our students hone their skills learning how to pass coursework and exams. They debate football scores and reality television. They hone their questioning with zingers like “Will that be on the exam?”. They expend massive amounts of time trying to find out exactly what they need to do for their upcoming assignment. And we reinforce all of this. We have taught them to follow in our footsteps, and they have. We both have forgotten about thinking.

As the content beast has continued to double in size every 10 or 5 or 3 or 1 year, we have been caught up in the process of finding and transmitting that content at an ever greater pace. A five minute topic in 1955 has expanded to 5 years of non-stop talking today – and we have tried to ensure proper coverage. It is no wonder there is no time for thinking. There is too much to cover. How have we gone from celebrating the centrality of thinking to allowing it to all but disappear from the university? Can we use information abundance and ubiquity to bring back thinking? Can we place some value on having a discussion and debating a point? Can we begin to move our students out of lecture halls, where passivity is essential, to vibrant learning spaces, where access to all the information in the world is provided, debate is common, and questioning once again becomes the essence of a university?


3 thoughts on “The Rise of Content

  1. The sound thinking is perhaps upset by the picture of Keble College. It was designed in High Victorian Gothic style like the Houses of Parliament. Just a choice of image point. Actually what goes on in the traditional, Oxbridge education is probably far more akin to what you call for. It is intimate, face to face education. The Oxbridge tutorial for undergraduates is a weekly meeting of minds, maybe three people, four max, debating one student’s essay. In the middle and senior common rooms, and at the formal High Table dinners most days through term time, academics at other levels are expected to meet regularly – this brings ‘work to the table’ inevitably so learning and thought is socialised. Yesterday I spent the after noon at London’s School of Communication Arts – students work in collaborative teams of two or three. They have laptops but work generally takes place on A1 sheets in front of them. There is constant discussion and debate fuelled by the prorgramme, stimulated by tutors and supported by a constant stream of visiting mentors. I’ve just completed as Masters in Open and Distance Education but far from being a purist I want e-learning simply to be a component of this more engaged, human, interacting, social, face to face learning that you talk of. So how to go about some objective research? I take your point on this matter to as I contemplate embarking on three years of doctoral study. What, bluntly, in an objective and professional way, are the differences – the pros and cons.


  2. Jonathan, the picture illustrates exactly what my point is. Where are these rooms and spaces for real thinking and debate. So many universities have simply done away with them as a waste of space – and they are not! They are an integral part of the learning and thinking process. we need more of them.

    I know there are virtual spaces that are supposed to replace them, but they pale in comparison to the real thing. I think that scholarship today suffers from the lack of face to face contact that used to be an expected part of academia.


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