It’s Time to Rethink the Syllogisms We Tell Ourselves About Creating and Sharing Knowledge

rethink syllogisms

We often think of core values as standalone principles. But aren’t they really a set of interrelated assumptions? When I think of the values that have shaped my career, they form a syllogism:

  • Knowledge is a treasure.
  • Treasure is for sharing.
  • Therefore, knowledge is for sharing.

Because I’ve much of my life mistakenly thinking that everyone shares my perspective, it took me years to realize that the middle piece of this syllogism isn’t necessarily a given. In fact, in many ways, cultural attitudes concerning knowledge production form an argument that looks more like this:

  • Knowledge is a treasure.
  • Treasure must be guarded.
  • Therefore, knowledge must be protected and preserved by elite knowledge-workers.

I first recognized how entrenched this second syllogism is when a group of accountants introduced me to the 2015 book The Future of the Professions by Richard and Daniel Susskind. 

At the time, the accountants were starting to worry about the impact of automation on their profession and looking for help renovating their professional development programming. The questions the Susskinds raise, however, apply broadly across many different professions, including law, medicine, engineering, consulting, and academic research.

Drawing on the work of philosopher Donald Schön and others, the Susskinds show that the way we think about creating and sharing of knowledge has been shaped for centuries by a “grand bargain.” 

Historically, this has been the deal: those who own subject expertise are expected to share it with others, and, in return for this service, they’re given a great deal of power. 

Even in our digital era, “professionals” and “experts” exert a great deal of control over who creates knowledge, who accesses it, how creation and access happen, and how the processes of knowledge-creation and knowledge-sharing are governed.

In other words, elite knowledge-workers have long been accustomed to acting as “gatekeepers” (the Susskinds’ term) of rarified resources. As a society, we’ve assumed that if knowledge is a treasure, then it must be locked down as tightly as national gold reserves.

Admitting this truth can be helpful because it enables us to face the challenges of knowledge translation with realistic expectations and with grace. 

If translating and mobilizing knowledge feels hard to do, then, that’s because it’s a form of cultural rebellion.

If conveying research insights through an unfamiliar medium—such as a podcast, a play, an infographic, or bite-sized videos—feels like a mind-bender, that’s because such activity runs counter to cultural norms. 

When we step back and recognize the way our society frames knowledge production, then we can read this observation from the Susskinds with empathy:

So deeply are they entrenched in the traditions of their profession, and so profoundly immersed in working practices of the past, that most professionals find it hard to conceive that their knowledge and experience—their practical expertise—might be made available in entirely different ways. (Part II, Section 5.4)

Considering those words, I’m able to give myself grace for all the times I’ve bumped up against knowledge siloes, in the academy and elsewhere, and felt like a bull in a china shop. I can also appreciate why learning to adapt to the conventions of business communication took time and required some humbling lessons.

As we tackle global problems almost beyond comprehension, knowledge translation will play a vital role. So I propose a third version of the syllogism with which I opened this article:

  • Knowledge is a social treasure.
  • Social treasure is for the good of all.
  • Therefore, let’s spend knowledge as wisely, generously, and as expeditiously as we can.

While the philosophers in the crowd might fault me on my formal logic, this is the kind of imperfect but impassioned thinking we’ll need to liberate knowledge from outdated safeguards. This is the kind of cultural refashioning it will take to shift from gatekeeping knowledge to mobilizing it for the greatest good.


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