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Knowledge and Action are One: The University in Transition

October 5, 2011 Comments off

During the Enlightenment, intellectuals used to keep journals of random quotations they ran across, along with other bits and pieces of information they wanted to keep track of. These memory joggers were often referred to as commonplace books, and their owners reviewed them often for inspiration. I have my own version of this venerable tradition, in the form of a file on my laptop into which I dump everything interesting or useful that I run across. Because it’s searchable, I can find things easily, but occasionally I read through it from beginning to end just to remind myself of everything I’ve forgotten.

So last week, I ran across the following quotation I had copied down several years ago. It pertains so directly to one of the central aims of the Chancellor’s Forum—to enhance communication between the campus and the community—that I thought it might be worth bringing to everyone’s attention. It’s from a book by Mary Lindenstein Walshok, Dean of Extended Studies at the University of California San Diego, entitled Knowledge Without Boundaries: What America’s Research Universities Can Do for the Economy, the Workplace, and the Community (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995). In the foreword, Daniel Yankelovich notes that “Walshok’s central point is that knowledge cannot and should not be simply warehoused in universities but rather applied and consumed across all dimensions of society” (xiii).

Walshok writes that knowledge

is much more than information. It connotes what is known about a subject based on rules and standards of analysis as well as methods for information gathering. In more commonsense terms, knowledge is information put to work. It is the marriage of theory and experimentation. It is the integration of ideas and experience. Knowledge is what enables people to make judgments, create new products, solve problems, and interpret events. Such a full definition of knowledge clarifies why the use of such a concept as the ‘information society’ is unfortunate even though it may be accurate in many ways. Information is merely discrete facts about circumstances and events, meaningless without a body of principles to organize it, to give it coherence and meaning. Without these principles, any significance or implication for action is unclear. Americans are inundated with information wherever they go. What they need are ways to sort, to evaluate, make judgments, and take action. That is what knowledge enables people to do. We are instead bombarded with data and information: Dow Jones averages, opinion polls, population statistics, psychological inventories, and standardized tests. We may be an information society, but what we need to become is a knowledge society: a society composed of people and institutions capable of evaluating and using information for positive social and economic purposes (pp. 5-6).

Universities, she continues, “have not taken seriously the accelerating cycles of change affecting the society and have been reluctant to recognize the significance of the exponential growth of expertise and knowledge functions outside the university. Thus they have inadvertently created a kind of mandarin culture within the university, just as knowledge and expertise apparently are becoming more democratized within American society as a whole” (9).

The mention of the “mandarin culture” then brought to mind a very famous philosopher/statesman in the Ming dynasty in China by the name of Wang Yangming, who was known for his belief that knowledge was inseparable from practice, and practice was inseparable from knowledge. “Knowledge and action,” in his words, “are one.” Words to live by. And organize a Forum by—to bring knowledge to bear on practice, and practice to bear on knowledge!