6.2 Shaping knowledge
It seems inevitable that any understandings we have will have been shaped and influenced by other (past and present) members of the same culture(s) we belong to. Most of these influences ‘just happen’: they arise out of our experiences as part of a culture whose members have had their experiences and shared them over many centuries. However, knowledge can also be deliberately influenced by powerful elements within a society: as we saw in Section 5.3, the church suppressed Galileo's reasoned interpretation of the movement of the planets, while as recently as 1925 an American biology teacher was put on trial for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution (Larson, 1998). Political authorities can also impose their own versions of the truth: up until the end of the 1980s it was widely believed in Albania that the country had the highest standard of living in Europe, when in fact it had the lowest (Hamilton, 1992).
Another, less sinister example of the deliberate shaping of knowledge may be found in the academic sphere. The conceptual toolkits represented by everyday use of subject knowledge have, over the centuries, been refined and developed for their own sake. For example, according to the Greek historian, Herodotus, geometry originated in ancient Egypt for the purpose of measuring and marking out fields after the annual flooding of the Nile Valley (Boyer and Merzbach, 1989). The principles of this practical activity were then developed in an abstract way by later mathematicians such as Euclid and Pythagoras. Thus geometry became a free-standing academic discipline, a body of knowledge with an internal consistency which could apply in many situations, even those that had not yet been conceived – it enabled the development of later applications such as accurate navigation.
One of the goals of science has been to develop knowledge in a form that is unbiased and which has not been influenced by, on the one hand, powerful authorities and, on the other, possibly erroneous popular beliefs. The resulting body of scientific knowledge may appear to exist independently of contexts and knowers. In reality, however, scientific objectivity is achieved, so far as it is achievable, by sharing knowledge widely through a scientific community of practice, in which it can be tested and evaluated to ensure that it is compatible with other knowledge held by the community. Far from being independent of knowers, objective knowledge is in fact dependent on the acceptance of a large number of knowers (Polanyi, 1962). Any academic discipline can be seen as a culture, with its own accepted practices and specialised ways of using language. Within this paradigm, subject learning is a process of enculturation (Brown et al., 1989) – that is, of learning to behave as a competent member of the culture.