Revolutionising the global knowledge society

A revolution can be defined as a fundamental change to the status quo that occurs in a relatively short timeframe. Revolutions of all types (political, economic, social, technological) have occurred numerous times throughout human history. Although the seeds of revolutions are usually planted over many years, they typically do not reach full fruition until triggered by a momentous innovation, event or other actions.

Historical analysis shows that revolutions serve as major catalysts for change. In other words, revolutions upset the established order. Some revolutions were particularly important (and necessary) for the continued development of mass learning and universal education. This phenomenon is analysed and explained in more depth in the book, Democratizing Higher Education.

Emergence of mass learning

In the modern era (1450 CE to the present day) the Printing Revolution – triggered by the invention of the metal movable-type printing press in Germany – represents a clear line of demarcation that helped usher in the move towards a global knowledge society. The wide-ranging usefulness of this standardised form of mass communication increased the demand for written texts, which in turn, increased literacy rates and mass learning.

The Printing Revolution also helped lay the foundation for other revolutions in the ensuing two centuries: most notably the Renaissance and the Reformation, which in turn, laid the foundation for the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, revolutions often have a ripple effect across generations and nations.

The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and the Democratic Revolution in America and France in the 18th and 19th centuries, together with the global Digital Revolution of the 20th century, were also momentous events that helped shape today’s global knowledge society.

With regard to political, economic and social development, historical evidence shows a positive correlation between three key variables: years of education, degree of socio-economic development and degree of democratic development and stability.

The Industrial Revolution marked a fundamental turning-point in socio-economic development. The new innovations coming out of this revolution resulted in a major increase in economic production as well as new opportunities for international trade. These new developments also challenged the status quo of the day (feudalism, mercantilism, autocracy, colonialism) that centred on hereditary privilege, strict social orders and exploitive use of power.

Broadly speaking, at the economic level, feudalism gradually gave way to mercantilism, which gradually gave way to capitalism. At the political level, autocracy gradually gave way to colonialism, which gradually gave way to democracy. Today, democracy and capitalism (in various forms) have emerged as the prevalent political and economic models. Current forms of these two models are the result of each country’s unique cultural-historical context.

Point of convergence

One of the key points of convergence occurred in the year 1776 when Scottish moral and political philosopher Adam Smith published the book, The Wealth of Nations, and when America ratified The Declaration of Independence. The economic ideals presented in The Wealth of Nations challenged the mercantilist and colonial paradigm of the time and helped fuel, and provide the intellectual support for, the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, the political ideals presented in The Declaration of Independence replaced the colonial model of political governance with a democratic model and, in the process, ignited the Democratic Revolution.

Smith provided an extensive argument against mercantilism and he promoted the idea that everyone in society, irrespective of social class or hereditary privilege, deserved the basic right of self-determination. This argument also helped lay the foundation for the ideas of social mobility and economic justice. His analysis provided a much needed intellectual critique of the mercantilist and colonial practices of the time.

As with other influential thinkers before and after his time – for example, Copernicus and Galileo at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, Durkheim, Marx and Weber in the development of the social sciences as a new academic domain and Comenius at the dawn of the modern educational system – these revolutionary ideas marked a clear line of demarcation between the old and new paradigms of the time.

In spite of their imperfections, democracy and capitalism have evolved into the prevailing political and economic systems today. Thus, one of the main goals of modern governments and societies is to continually seek ways to improve these systems for the benefit of all.

The primary advantages of these systems is their focus on freedom, responsibility, justice and human rights. However, a major challenge for countries today with these systems is how best to balance the interests of freedom and responsibility on one hand with the interests of justice and human rights on the other hand (that is, how best to develop a humane rule of law that is fair to all).

The human drive to learn

These developments of human progress illustrate an important principle: the basic drives encoded in human nature ultimately determine social development in the long run. Oppressive systems are less sustainable in the long run because they run counter to the basic human desire for freedom and justice.

This suggests that the reason why democratically-oriented societies with mixed market economies have emerged as the prevalent form of governance and social structure is because the principles on which they are based tend to be most in alignment with human drives and aspirations.

Even this very brief historical analysis reveals several important themes with respect to lifelong learning and its place in the global knowledge society. First, at a micro level, the human need to continually learn is a basic characteristic of human nature.

Second, at a macro level, human progress is often accompanied by great struggle and periodic revolutions. Third, universal education and lifelong learning are necessary for the continuing development of the global knowledge society. Thus, treating lifelong learning as a human right is imperative and has become one of the major human rights issues of the 21st century.

Knowledge creation together with the means to disseminate that knowledge via improved learning platforms has created unprecedented opportunities for lifelong learning. Access to affordable higher education opportunities throughout the entire course of life is therefore very important.

Higher education systems, as centres of knowledge consumption and production, and as engines of economic growth and social development, have taken on new importance in this continually emerging global knowledge society.

Higher education systems around the world are currently undergoing an academic revolution that is primarily the result of globalisation, democratisation and lifelong learning as a human right. As we move further into the 21st century, these factors will continue to play an important role in revolutionising the global knowledge society.

Patrick Blessinger is an adjunct associate professor of education at St John’s University in New York City, USA, and chief research scientist for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association. He is co-editor with John P Anchan of Democratizing Higher Education.