the educated person, per Drucker

Yesterday, as on many Saturdays, I read and return items to the Homewood Branch of the public library. Because another patron requested The Essential Drucker, I was compelled to quickly review this book. The main chapter that captured my attention is titled “The Educated Person,” originally from Peter Drucker‘s 1993 book Post-Capitalist Society. It begins:

Knowledge is not impersonal, like money. Knowledge does not reside in a book, a databank, a software program; they contain only information. Knowledge is always embodied in a person; carried by a person; created, augmented, or improved by a person; applied by a person; taught and passed on by a person; used or misused by a person. The shift to the knowledge society therefore puts the person in the center. In doing so, it raises new challenges, new issues, new and quite unprecedented questions about the knowledge society’s representative, the educated person.

In all earlier societies, the educated person was an ornament. He or she embodied Kultur – the German term that with its mixture of awe and derision is untranslatable into English (even “highbrow” does not come close). But in the knowledge society, the educated person is society’s emblem; society’s symbol; society’s standard-bearer. The educated person is the social “archetype” – to use the sociologist’s term. He or she defines society’s performance capacity. But he or she also embodies society’s values, beliefs, commitments. If the feudal knight was the clearest embodiment of society in the early Middle Ages, and the “bourgeois” in the Age of Capitalism, the educated person will represent society in the postcapitalist world in which knowledge has become the central resource.

At this early stage, I was metaphorically nodding in agreement. Drucker’s attempt to distinguish knowledge from information, by centering knowledge in personhood, appeals greatly to me, as does his elevation of the educated person as the standard-bearer of society.

But then I began to wonder what Drucker meant by this, that personhood is necessary for knowledge. What counts as a “person,” and what does he mean by “knowledge,” in contrast to information?

What is Drucker’s stance towards Cartesian mind-body duality: can the mind (and knowledge) of a person be separated from body, or does “personhood” require a material substrate? That is, would he hold that materialism alone cannot account fully for consciousness, as in Nagel’s thought experiment “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Or would he instead agree with the postmodernist Lyotard, who suggests in his essay “Can Thought go on without a Body?” that we cannot dissociate human thought and perception from our particular bodies, including differences such as gender?

This piece by Drucker antedates widespread commercial access to the Internet, which has engendered a rise of a kind of artificial intelligence: algorithms harvesting vast amounts of data. Before Copernicus, humans inhabited the center of the universe. Before Darwin, humans distinguished and elevated themselves from the rest of the biological organisms on Earth. In the quarter-century since Drucker wrote, I wonder whether the line between knowledge and information has become blurred by artificial intelligence. Humans are no longer the only entities on this Earth who can identify patterns in information and take action. Our algorithms can also diagnose disease, play chess and Go, drive cars, win trivia contests, and predict and influence human preferences in everything from media consumption to political action.

Continuing to excerpt Drucker:

A motley crew of post-Marxists, radical feminists, and other “antis” argues that there can be no such thing as an educated person – the position of those new nihilists, the “deconstructionists.” Others in this group assert that there can be only educated persons with each sex, each ethnic group, each race, each “minority” requiring its own separate culture and a separate – indeed an isolationist – educated person … [T]heir target is the same: the universalism that is at the very core of the concept of an educated person, whatever it may be called (“educated person” in the West, or “bunjin” in China and Japan).

The opposing camp – we might call them the “humanists” – also scorns the present system. But it does so because it fails to produce a universally educated person. The humanist critics demand a return to the nineteenth century, to the “liberal arts,” the “classics,” the German Bebildete Mensch. They do not, so far, repeat the assertion made by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler fifty years ago at the University of Chicago that knowledge in its entirety consists of a hundred “great books.” But they are in direct line of descent from the Hutchins-Adler “return to premodernity.”

Both sides, alas, are wrong.

Again, I want to agree with Drucker. It is also my gut reaction that postmodernism verges upon nihilism and moral relativism. This drops the ground beneath our feet. To illustrate this, After all, Lyotard the postmodernist, translated from the French three decades ago, wrote, “I don’t know whether sexual difference is ontological difference… Your thinking machines will have to be nourished not just on radiation but on the irremediable different of gender.” But the idea of gender itself has become interrogated since then, and gender has become a more fluid concept. 

On the other hand, we cannot simply go back one hundred years, ignoring the technological, social, and philosophical changes that have occurred since modernism. According to Drucker, looking backward would have a stultifying effect on educated persons — and I agree:

The knowledge society must have at its core the concept of the educated person. It will have to be a universal concept, precisely because the knowledge society is a society of knowledges and because it is global – in its money, its economics, its careers, its technology, its central issues, and above all, in its information. Postcapitalist society requires a unifying force. It requires a leadership group, which can focus local, particular, separate traditions onto a common and shared commitment to values, a common concept of excellent, and on mutual respect.

The postcapitalist society – the knowledge society – thus needs exactly the opposite of what deconstructionists, radical feminists, or anti-Westerners propose. It needs the very thing they totally reject: a universally educated person.

Yet the knowledge society needs a kind of educated person different from the ideal for which the humanists are fighting. They rightly stress the folly of their opponents’ demand to repudiate the Great Tradition and the wisdom, beauty, and knowledge that are the heritage of mankind. But a bridge to the past is not enough – and that is all the humanists offer. The educated person needs to be able to bring his or her knowledge to bear on the present, not to mention to have a role in molding the future. There is no provision for such ability in the proposals of the humanist, indeed no concern for it. But without it, the Great Tradition remains dusty antiquarianism.

(Reading only this excerpt from Post-Capitalist Society, I confess I don’t know what Drucker, who so often was published by the Harvard Business Review, means by postcapitalism.)

… Postcapitalist society needs the educated person even more than any earlier society did, and access to the great heritage of the past will have to be an essential element.  But this heritage will embrace a good deal more than the civilization that is still mainly Western, the Judeo-Christian tradition, for which the humanists are fighting.  The educated person we need will have to be able to appreciate other cultures and traditions: for example, the great heritage of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean paintings and ceramics; the philosophers and religions of the Orient; and Islam, both as a religion and as a culture. The educated person also will have to be far less exclusively “bookish” than the product of the liberal education of humanists. He or she will need trained perception fully as much as analysis.

The Western tradition will, however, still have to be at the core, if only to enable the educated person to come to grips with the present,  let alone the future.  The future maybe “post-Western”; it may be “anti-Western.” It cannot be “non-Western.” Its material civilization and its knowledges all rest on Western foundations: Western science; tools and technology; production; economics; Western-style finance and banking. None of these can work unless grounded in an understanding and acceptance of Western ideas and of the entire Western tradition.

I question whether material civilization and knowledges must rest on Western foundations – or even what this means. I happen to agree with him, but I may be making assumptions about what counts as “Western” as well as discounting the influence that “non-Western” civilizations and knowledge have had historically. And while Western foundations may explain the state of the world today, it’s not entirely clear whether this was simply an accident of history and whether Western foundations are an inevitable necessity of the future. In summary, his and my understanding of Western tradition may be a shared blind spot.

Tomorrow’s educated person will have to be prepared for life in a global world. It will be a Westernized world,  but also increasingly a tribalized world. He or she must become a “citizen of the world” – in vision, horizon, information. But he or she will also have to draw nourishment from their local roots and, in turn, enrich and nourish their own local culture.

Postcapitalist society is both a knowledge society and a society of organizations, each dependent on the other and yet each very different in its concepts, views, and values. Most, if not all, educated persons will practice their knowledge as members of an organization. The educated person will therefore have to be prepared to live and work simultaneously in two cultures – that of the “intellectual,” who focuses on words and ideas, and that of the “manager,” who focuses on people and work.

If I may summarize, in this essay Drucker distinguishes knowledge from information, declaring that only persons have knowledge. He then sets up dichotomies between humanism and postmodernism, between Western and Eastern heritages, between global and local citizenship, between technical and humanistic practices (in a section that I did not excerpt here), and between intellectual and managerial cultures. In his view, the best educated persons of the future must navigate the spaces of these dualities.

He closes:

[O]ne thing we can predict: the greatest change will be the change in knowledge – in its form and content; in its meaning; in its responsibility; and in what it means to be an educated person.

Drucker’s essay leaves the thoughtful reader with two challenges. The first is how to shore up and elucidate the points he makes. I am personally inclined to agree with him, he sounds good, but the terms of his arguments are vague. I would want to see them clarified, amended, and/or winnowed.

Suppose we do accept the broad sense of his arguments, that he has outlined what constitutes an educated person. The second, more interesting, and larger challenge is how to actually implement this vision, in order to educate students across the arts and sciences.

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