Twenty-Eighth Annual Lecture

Toward a New Europe? Knowledge as a Transformational Resource since the 1970s

November 13, 2014, 5:00-7:00pm
Lecture at the GHI
Speaker: Andreas Wirsching (Institut für Zeitgeschichte München)
Comment: Jeffrey J. Anderson (Georgetown University)

  • Event Report

    Professor Wirsching's lecture examined the role of European conceptions of "knowledge" in the transformations of European society since the 1970s. In the first part of his lecture, Professor Wirsching examined the origins of a new concept of knowledge as a transformational resource. Already in 1959, the well-known management expert Peter Drucker had predicted the rise of a new class of "knowledge workers" who would have more power over their careers than traditional white-collar workers because of their ability to repeatedly acquire highly specialized knowledge. The Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell adopted a similar analysis in his The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society (1973), in which he transformed Marxist ideas into an optimistic analysis of the future direction of society.

    In the second part of the lecture, Wirsching turned to the political implementation of the concept of a "knowledge society" in the policies of the European Union. Starting in the 1990s, the European Union made the concept of the "knowledge society" the basis of its "Lisbon strategy," which was designed to improve European economic competitiveness by transforming a third of the workforce into "knowledge workers" within the near future. Whereas previously Europeans had regarded education as a way to strengthen citizenship, in the 1990s education was increasingly seen as a tool to improve European economic competitiveness in the context of globalization.

    In the final part of his lecture, Wirsching reflected on the problems and ambiguities arising from the concept of the "knowledge society," pointing to three dilemmas in particular: First, Drucker's notion of highly trained "knowledge workers" as masters of their own destiny did not materialize; in this sense, the "age of utopia" in the history of the knowledge society is over. Second, the trend toward the transformation of society into a knowledge society is a global one, especially pronounced in China and the other BRIC countries. If there is a European peculiarity in this trend, it is Europeans' uneasiness about the role of science in society. Finally, science and expert knowledge do not guarantee the right answers. Knowledge grows more rapidly than our ability to process or synthesize it, and science is always only a limited guide to policy. In conclusion, Wirsching warned that the development toward a knowledge society brings with it the dangers of technocratic rule, social engineering, and social polarization.

    In his commentary, Jeffrey Anderson noted that the concept of the knowledge society is compatible with opposing political agendas, namely, a strong belief in individualism on the right and in equality on the left. His comment focused on two arguments. First, knowledge is an independent agent of change with unpredictable consequences: on the one hand, new information technologies, including the social media, have shown their potential to bring down existing political structures, but they do not always do so; the explosion of information has also coincided with increasing inequality. Second, the political implications of the knowledge society are cause for concern: increasingly, the individual is regarded as responsible for his or her own success or failure, thus absolving society of any responsibility.

    Lecture and comment were followed by a lively discussion.


  • Invitation
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