Information Goes to School

Education concept

Education is a classic example of the confusion that arises when we reframe all different kinds of economic sectors in terms of information. A scholar once challenged my critique of the idea of the information economy, asking during a talk if it was not true that piracy undermined the economy by threatening the livelihood of people who make intellectual property. “I produce intellectual property,” he said, “and I think it deserves to be protected.” My response was only to ask how many people actually produce intellectual property. “In this room,” I said, looking around a seminar full of history professors, “that number is approaching 100%.”

The answer may seem simple in the company of academics, but there are really two questions here: first, how many people in American society actually make copyrighted works and patented inventions in the course of their daily work—people who could be literally termed “information workers” in the strictest sense, and whose jobs might be endangered by piracy? And second, is publishing articles and books—the intellectual property my colleague was referring to—the most important thing that historians and other college professors actually do? In frank moments, most faculty members at research universities would probably say their research is the most important aspect of their work, with teaching a close or distant second, depending on whom you ask. In contrast, many students and parents probably assume that colleges are primarily institutions of learning, where people go to acquire knowledge and skills and (most crucially) credentials.


Under the information paradigm, we tend to imagine education as a transfer of knowledge from people who are containers of information (teachers) to empty repositories (students), yet I think most teachers do not think of what they do in these terms.[1] State boards of education and politicians who crow about accountability apparently think otherwise; getting “back to basics” means taking a student whose information gas tank is on E, getting as close as possible to F, and sending them on their way.[2] Is that what we hope for K-12 and college education to be? A transfer of information? The question might be better put: what kind of people do we want to be sending out into the world of work? What skills and knowledge do they need to solve the pressing problems we face (as a society) and live a good life (as individuals and families)?

Calling education, healthcare, and entertainment “information industries” only shifts the focus from where real labor and real value arise to the powers that control such labor and value in the form of information and intellectual property. A CEO, superintendent, or college president is responsible for the distribution of information through the institution he or she manages, but teachers and artists are the ones who actually convey their unique expression to an audience. If we really want to pursue a future of prosperity, creativity, and innovation, we should look to enhancing the capabilities of actual human beings to do good and novel things, rather than fighting over who owns what and the innumerable prerogatives corporations hold over knowledge, expression, thought, and information as property.


Skill is embodied knowledge. In the classic allegory about teaching a man to fish, a book about fishing might be copyrighted information, but the ability to fish is not just a bunch of facts in the fishermen’s head; it is that, in addition to practice, experience, muscle memory, and the interplay of these factors with other learning experiences.  The capability encoded in muscle memory might be thought of as a type of information—like anything else stored in webs of neurons in the brain—but to do so seems to stretch the “information” metaphor to its utmost limits.

It is fine to think of teaching and other types of communication as a transmission or exchange of knowledge, but we should not think of people merely as containers for knowledge, a thing bought for a dear price on the marketplace. As many teachers admit, they know students will not necessarily remember the details of the Treaty of Ghent or much else from their classes. But they do hope to instill some kind of critical thinking or curiosity, while supplying students with a certain repertoire of facts and concepts to use after they leave the classroom. Every historian groans at the complaint that history is just a lot of facts and dates. Facts are not nothing, of course, but they are also not everything. I endured twenty four long years of formal education from kindergarten through graduate school and, to paraphrase the old country song, I know I have already forgotten more than I will ever know.

What I have not forgotten is the ability to learn, which encompasses a whole range of skills and memories. I know where to look to find answers (at least where to begin), and I know how to pose questions. These are the basic competencies of research that serve a history teacher designing a lesson plan, an organizer working for an non-governmental organization (NGO), or an English major who writes a catalog for a wholesaler. If we think in terms of capabilities, competencies, and skills, the role of information as an item of exchange begins to seem less important in the management of everyday life, to say nothing of building our common future.

For many students, though, education is neither a transmission of knowledge nor the learning of skills. It is simply a hoop to jump through, usually at great personal cost, to obtain enough social capital (meaning connections, approval from superiors, and status) to clear the bar for employability in some kind of middle class job. I chose to go to Columbia University for graduate school primarily because the scholars who I most desired to work with were there, but the institution clearly had the ability to pay off in terms of contacts with influential people and a powerful brand name. I got to work for George Stephanopoulos because the former political operative and now television host went to college there in the 1980s and still looked to his former professors to recommend potential research assistants. To underline the fact that higher education is not actually about gaining access to scarce and proprietary knowledge, some elite universities have begun posting videos and podcasts of their professors’ lectures online in the form of MOOCs. The idea is a fine one; almost anything that opens up access to knowledge is a social good in my view, from Wikileaks to iTunes University. But anyone who aspires to Ivy League privilege is bound to find out fast that watching a college major’s worth of videos of lectures by Harvard professors is not the same thing as getting a degree there.

This analysis of education is important for understanding the ideology of information because schools (particularly universities) are institutions that seem to be purely about information, in a way that few other organizations are, save perhaps for think tanks or public libraries. In the 1960s, many activists on the New Left saw the university as the central institution of an increasingly prosperous, potentially radical new society. Given its crucial role in swelling the ranks of a newly educated middle class after World War II, the importance of science to leaps in productivity, and the growing linkages between corporations, the military and the intellectual resources of college faculty, the university did appear to be at the nexus of an emergent postindustrial order.[3]

The trends foreseen by the writers of the Port Huron Statement have actually continued to unfold, albeit in ways that few surviving activists would applaud. Universities have only become more tightly wound into corporate and military research, while enterprising colleges (beginning with Harvard’s policy on patent, adopted by the university in 1975) have reimagined themselves as “incubators” for intellectual property, where inventions by faculty can be licensed for profit. In this sense alone, universities have become preeminent examples of an economy geared toward producing and selling information as a commodity.[4]

Otherwise, education seems to be failing at the role assigned to it by those at the helm of the information economy—politicians, business leaders, the media, even educators themselves. How are we to make more and better information if our information distribution system is so faulty? How will we keep up with those unfairly studious Chinese then? As literary theorist Alan Liu observed in his survey of management books, the apocalyptic quality of American education is a familiar trope of that peculiar genre of literature, the business jeremiad/advice book. Schooling in America is so bad, these texts claim, that it cripples our chance at a prosperous future while making it nearly impossible for business to function properly and find capable employees.[5] The pseudo-celebrity of former Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and the wide influence of treatises from the 1983 report A Nation at Risk to 2010’s anti-union documentary Waiting for Superman reveal a pervasive (as well as persistent) sense of crisis in education. If “information generation, processing, and transmission [is] the fundamental sources of productivity and power,” as Castells has said, then we are truly “at risk”—in danger of failing to equip people with the knowledge and ability to make more knowledge.

Schools embody all the contradictions of the so-called information economy. Colleges pretend to sell information at an ever-increasing price, when they are really selling social capital and credibility in an increasingly unequal society (one where the super-rich can drive up the cost of education across the board by paying whatever price it takes to reproduce their privileged status in their children—a sort of educational arms race).[6] Meanwhile, many students come out of college appearing to know very little, or even lacking the capacity for critical thinking that we hope that they have (at least) acquired. A new book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, sociologists at New York University and the University of Virginia respectively, argued that most college students do not learn how to apply basic skills of writing, research and reasoning to solve a problem in their courses. They learn neither facts, figures, and formulas nor critical thinking skills.[7] Whether Arum and Roska’s evidence is sound or not is unclear—perhaps students with some majors (History perhaps?) perform better than people with, say, Business degrees. Whatever student achievement may be in general, capable students still find themselves coming out of college burdened with debt, only to discover that society is willing to invest a good deal of resources in developing their talents without ever finding a way to make use of them. We can teach a man to fish, but what good is a fishermen in the desert?

Perhaps colleges are failing because they do neither of the things they claim to do—educate and inform students, or prepare them for work and citizenship in a democratic society. Rather, they pass paying customers through the system to obtain credentials that are necessary but far from sufficient for finding a job. A smarter society might ask what it is we hope students will do after college, what it is that we actually need done to ensure a good standard of life for all, and then figure out ways that we could help students learn how to do those things. Historians like myself are prone to complain that we do not know where we have been, so of course we have little chance of knowing where are going. Instead, we continue to pay our respects to those information industries—the media, the pharmaceutical industry, finance, and, indeed, higher education—that retain enough economic advantage and political favor to further enrich their wealthy and well-connected patrons. As Judith Stein has shown, our tax policy provides benefits to finance, real estate, and research-intensive industries, while disadvantaging sectors like manufacturing (to the point that General Motors could only save itself by spinning its financial branch off as a bank, the Ally brand that has become familiar to TV watchers since 2009). Meanwhile, speculators who traffic in numbers, software, and proprietary knowledge on Wall Street get to describe themselves as the “productive” members of society, the “job creators.” Of course they are job creators. They work with information, and Americans have information jobs.

The ideology of the information economy obscures the real working of economic relationships by virtue of such shiny, electric buzzwords. It treats the skills, intelligence, knowledge, and creativity of workers of all kinds, whether they work in trades, education, research, retail or real estate, as a thing—information—that is typically the rightful property of business. (Of course, there are exceptions—independent artists and musicians who retain the rights to their own works, university researchers who own a portion of their patented inventions, and professionals like attorneys who enjoy relative autonomy.) As a container and producer of information, I know my work will be turned into a form not owned by me, and it hardly matters given that a record of producing this work, whoever owns it, gives me a chance to cling to an otherwise vanishing perch in the professional middle class (the tenure-track academic job).

Yet I do feel alienated from my work when I cannot share a book review I have written with others because the copyright belongs to a journal, and access to the article is behind a paywall for the general public or password access for university and library patrons. (The business model can be ludicrous at times; without the benefit of a university affiliation, one can get access to a twenty-two page article for only $31.50. What a deal!)[8] It is not as if this arrangement does not make some basic economic sense. My book review has almost no actual exchange value unto itself (seriously, no one cares what someone no has ever heard of has to say about a book no one is going to read), but the journal can only get libraries and universities to pay for it if it renders the articles scarce by limiting access.

A PDF of a journal article is still not a thing in the same sense as a book or a truck or a pencil, though. The adjunct with a PhD but no current university affiliation might feel the ultimate insult by not even being able to access or read the work he created along the way to terminal unemployment, being on the other side of the digital divide for the first time in years. But I can still post my PDF, so long as I saved a copy, on my personal website. The tiny number of people who would care about it in any case (whether access was free or restricted) can still search for and see it. A journal or press can impose a degree of scarcity on it through contract and custom, but the book review is not truly a scarce good like any of the other material things that fill up our lives. My writing is not necessarily alienated from me in practice, but it is in principle and by law.

Information may be a kind of fiction, or at least an inapt and overused metaphor—but it is the commodity form of labor in contemporary society. The rhetoric of information separates the intellect and capabilities of workers from themselves, and then turns it into an abstraction for policymakers and pundits to fetishize. It is a confidence trick, a shell game where the labor of teaching, speaking, singing, expressing, fixing, and caring is turned into a thing and switched with an empty cup. It is alienated labor.

This post is part of a four-part series that ToM will be running over the Summer. Earlier installments include “The Thing Called ‘Information’: Understanding Alienation in the Postindustrial Economy” and “Stroking the Platypus.”  The next is “The Tragicomedy of Postindustrial Labor.”  For earlier pieces on related topics, click here.


[1] For an analysis of the metaphor of communication as the transfer of information from one container to another, see Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1997), 155.

[2] Francis J. Breslin, “‘Back-to-Basics’: Education’s Brave New World?” NJEA Review 54 (Jan. 1981):12-3.

[3] Howard Brick, “Optimism of the Mind: Imagining a Postindustrial Society in the 1960s and 1970s,” American Quarterly 44 (Sept., 1992): 354.

[4] “Statement of Policy in Regard to Inventions, Patents, and Copyrights,” Harvard University,; for example of the “incubator” rhetoric, see “USC Columbia Technology Incubator,” University of South Carolina,, “NC State University Technology Incubator,” North Carolina State University,, and Frank T. Rothaermel and Marie Thursby, “Incubator Firm Failure or Graduation? The Role of University Linkages,” Research Policy 34 (2005): 1076-90.

[5] Liu, Laws of Cool, 18-9.

[6] Tellingly, the recent experience of several colleges has shown that lowering costs actually diminishes interest among students, while raising tuition stimulates applications—seemingly on the principle that if it is expensive, it must be good. Jonathan D. Glater and Alan Finder, “In Tuition Game, Popularity Rises with Price,” New York Times, 12 Dec. 2006,

[7] Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[8] “Confessions of an Information Worker,” Science Direct,