Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.26.15Knowledge is a Commodity! (Or is it?)


Pithy, but is this the right analogy for knowledge?

I read the following quotation this morning in an article in Fast Company on the future of college (italics mine):

“Charging people lots of money to provide them with skills they could learn from an Internet video is probably not gonna be a viable long-term financial model,” says Richard Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering. “Knowledge is now a commodity. It’s really inexpensive and easy to get. Who’s gonna pay you for that? So now we’re in the process of changing.”

It’s a quote that has that pithy germ-of-insight-from-a-consultant-in-an-elevator kind of feel to it.  And at first glance, you’re likely to think, “Yeah, knowledge is so much more accessible now.  That HAS to be right.”  But is it?

The argument here is economic at it’s basis and it goes something like this: Because knowledge is easy to find, anyone can find (and understand) any piece of it at any time.   So the knowledge itself is almost valueless…it’s a raw material… and what has value is what you do with it–your clever, creative thinking once you’ve googled a fact.

I want to observe that there is a big difference between knowledge being more accessible and knowledge being less valuable.  In fact, I think that you could argue that BECAUSE knowledge is more accessible, knowledge itself is MORE valuable.

Why?  Well consider that with knowledge circulating rapidly and easily, it’s actually the person who can distinguish and understand the value of a certain piece of knowledge who can make the best use of it.  And that requires knowledge.  Skills too, but absolutely knowledge.

Consider this fact:  Real Madrid yesterday sacked its manager Carlo Ancelotti and it is certainly true that the information age has made this information much easier to access.  I live in upstate New York, 3500 miles from Madrid, and I heard the news, via twitter within probably a minute of it happening, as did millions and millions of people in similarly obscure places around the world.  So the value of being able to access this information has undeniably gone down.  Twenty years ago, I would have had to have personal friends in Madrid who called me with the news or perhaps, to have known about an obscure soccer periodical here in the US that covered Spanish football and, days later, might have published an article.  MAYBE I’d have heard through word of mouth contacts, maybe someone with an uncle in Madrid or who watched some kind of late night soccer broadcast deep in the dark forest of cable. Either way, I would then derive significant credibility by being the first–days or weeks later–in upstate NY to know that Ancelotti was sacked.  Or perhaps I could have husbanded the information and moneitzed its value-wagering with someone on the fact or the likelihood of Real Madrid winning La Liga. That of course would have required me to know someone else in upstate New York who knew what Real Madrid was, but regardless, knowing in and of itself had value.

Now, merely knowing that fact does not have much value at all. Everybody who wants to know knows. But the more you know about the world (of international football in this case), the more valuable the fact is and the more you understand the ramifications: that Rafa Benitez’s position at Napoli just got more tenuous.  Gareth Bale’s rumored transfer to Man United is now even harder to predict.  Ancelotti’s statement that he intends to have back surgery though makes the mooted move (ambitious) to the Boleyn Ground unlikely.  Smart money is now spot on Slaven Bilic to take over at West Ham.

Did you get all that? Your ability to understand the value of the information correlates to whether you know who Gareth Bale, Rafa Benitez, and Slaven Bilic are; on whether you know that the Boleyn Ground and West Ham are references to the same club, which you had to know fired its manager on Monday and was rumored to be interested in a short list of candidates including Ancelotti.  The more you know, the more you understand the now ubiquitous knowledge. Thinking skills matter too, of course, but only to those who have the knowledge to understand the fact, and in correlation to how much knowledge you have to contextualize it.

And knowing more not only helps you connect facts and to understand them, but to know which of the billions of facts out there matter most–that, say, Ancelotti’s dismissal is more important than Steve McClaren’s from Derby County.  Which is interesting because you can find that latter fact just as easily and just as quickly in thousands of places on the internet.  And you can find lots of people obsessing on it.  So you have to know a lot to know that the Anceloti firing is probably more far reaching in ramifications than the McClaren firing (apologies to Derby County and Newcastle fans for whom this is top-of-the-page news).

Now, let’s leave the relatively trivial world of international football and look a better example.  Here’s a data set that a demographer I follow on Twitter, Max Roser (@MaxCRoser ), just tweeted a few seconds ago:

Results of high school exit exam in (2013). Minimum score to pass: 30%. From:

View image on Twitter


You need to know a lot to make sense of this.  For example you need to know that Roser is implicitly comparing this distribution to the distribution one would expect from any such result of large scale testing–that is, a normal curve–and that this one has a stunning anomaly to it.  That’s not a thinking skill, that’s knowledge. You only get that if you know what normal distributions of large groups of test takers are supposed to look like.  He is showing you that an inexplicably (from a statistical POV) large number of text takers miraculously pass… with those scoring in the mid-twenties (failing) receiving a (passing) thirty instead.   He is calling into question the veracity of the scoring methodology.  Again, you get that from knowledge, not skills.  And if you know a wide amount of things about a wide segment of the world you can take the available information from a distant field and use it to understand your own.

That is, this information is only accessible to those outside of the fields of demography and statistics to the degree that they know a bit about those fields.

But also you have to know WHY Roser is posting this tweet. Why would a demographer whose audience is almost entirely English-speaking and based in the UK and US even care about Poland? You would only know that readers would care about this tweet if you knew that Poland has performed surprisingly well on PISA results over the past few years… they are one of the fastest rising nations in the world in terms of student achievement results and so are frequently studied and discussed by those who care about comparative educational systems.  So, to make sense of this Tweet, I need to have knowledge of two relatively disconnected fields of knowledge–the value comes from my ability to triangulate from two dissonant knowledge bases. THEN I can critically think.  THEN I can add value to the discussion.  Knowledge–broad knowledge first—then critical thinking.

If you lack this fusion of knowledge-bases–and if you don’t see the connection right away without Googling it–you would likely ignore Roser’s tweet.  In fact, in the time it took me to write this more than 100 new tweets have crossed my transom.  It would be likely that his tweet would never register amidst the mass of information unless I instantly looked at it and recognized “Poland” and the image of a distorted normal curve and put the two together as being highly relevant to me within a half- second.

I should point out that I am not arguing against rigorous critical thinking and inquiry, just that the dismissal of knowledge as a commodity seems a bit hasty to me because critical thinking in fact relies upon it, and because knowledge seems to me to work via a network effect–the more you have the more valuable any piece is.

If that weren’t true, if knowledge were really a commodity rather than the driver of learning, then new insights in any field would not be correlated to the existing knowledge of the person making the insight. But when was the last time a layperson sat bolt upright in bed and had a grand insight about particle physics?  Only people who already know a great deal about particle physics are able to make use of the now rapidly growing rate of information available about the field.  The people with the MOST knowledge are able to make the best use of the accessibility of new knowledge.

So, while some may question why we need need to assimilate knowledge when we have Google, I would say having Google only makes knowledge more valuable.

2 Responses to “Knowledge is a Commodity! (Or is it?)”

  1. Sean
    May 26, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    Knowledge will always be important no matt er how freely available. It’s about value and worth if you want an economic perspective .Air is freely available yet it its value is unaccountable. So where does the worth come from . I think it comes from thinking . Knowledge is fundemental to natural selection . It aids survival and feeds growth . But it depends on how it is applied and that comes from thought . And of course a willingness to apply oneself to a thought process.

  2. Eric J Pollock
    June 4, 2015 at 3:06 am

    Knowledge may be a commodity, but how often does one get real assessment from watching a video? Sure, there may be a simple question in the identical form of the video just watched and an expected answer me be required, but if one was asked to write an essay or the question is in the form of a short answer, the required feedback is just not there. Also, how does extend the concept just learned to other areas of our lives? Videos may have the adaptability to reach large segments of a population in the same manner as lecture does, but the real learning takes place in the form of questioning that knowledge, answering others’ questions about that knowledge, and our own personal response to that knowledge, of which can be in the form of writing.

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