For at least a millennium, the notion of knowledge for knowledge's sake has helped to justify scholarly activity and universities themselves. But one vice-chancellor in Scotland says that this is no better than advocating eating "spinach for its own sake" and calls on the sector to "modernize" the arguments for its existence.
Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, writes on his blog  that he does not find the idea "useful" as it suggests "a metaphysical approach to knowledge that accords it importance without apparently knowing why."
"I believe strongly in the acquisition, discovery and dissemination of knowledge not for its own sake (which to me means nothing), but because [it] empowers, civilises and innovates," he writes on A University Blog. " 'Knowledge for its own sake' is no better as a pedagogical statement than 'spinach for its own sake' would be as a nutritional one," he says.
His comments come amid fierce and continuing debate over the introduction of a requirement to demonstrate the impact of scholarly work in the 2014 research excellence framework.
Writing in Times Higher Education in November to mark the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities, the historian Sir Keith Thomas argued that academics should be allowed to pursue knowledge and understanding "for their own sake, regardless of commercial value."
But von Prondzynski writes that such ideas were persuasive only "when education and knowledge were largely the property of a social elite who had no need to justify what they were doing. Today’s society needs something more, and there is plenty to give."
Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at St Anne’s College, Oxford, said that to assume defenders of "traditional" higher education, as von Prondzynski put it, based their arguments on the concept of knowledge for its own sake was to “attack a straw man.” Professor Hotson, chair of the CDBU’s advisory board, said that the council had a "far more nuanced position." He pointed out that its manifesto acknowledges that research often has "vital social and economic applications."
Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick and a member of the CDBU’s executive committee, added that "knowledge pursued to engender yet more knowledge can indeed yield a higher quality of life." But this argument got "little traction in government" because it did not always add to the gross domestic product, he said.