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Knowledge for Social Change

reviewed by John M. Heffron

coverTitle: Knowledge for Social Change: Bacon, Dewey, and the Revolutionary Transformation of Research Universities in the Twenty-First Century
Author(s): Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, John Puckett, Matthew Hartley, Rita A. Hodges, Francis E. Johnston, & Joann Weeks
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439915199, Pages: 206, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

The intellectual may be defined as one for whom thinking fulfills at once the function of work and play; as a person whose relationship to society is defined by their capacity to comment upon it with greater detachment than those more directly caught up in the practical business of production and power. His or her vocation is to be a critic of society, Socrates’ “gadfly,” the value of their criticism resting on the presumption of detachment and disinterestedness. The intellectual’s relation to the rest of society is thus never an entirely comfortable one. More than that, it is shot through with ambiguity. Doesn’t the intellectual’s authority, his or her legitimacy, depend at least in part on a deadly assumption, deadly anyways for the future of democracy, that the masses are sunk in ignorance and superstition, unable to see clearly their own best interests, and require an elite vanguard of enlightened leaders to lead them out of the cave? And then there is the German poet Heinrich Heine who once warned, not without some hyperbole: “Note this, you proud men of action, you are nothing but the unconscious tools of the men of thought, who in humble stillness have often drawn up your most definitive plans of action” (as cited in Berlin, 2013, p. xxv). The relationship between theory and practice, thought and action, abstraction and “reality” is not a simple one, especially today when, as the authors of Knowledge for Social Change boldly declare, “Commercialism and codification, misplaced nostalgia for traditional, elitist, ‘ivory tower’ liberal arts education, and intellectual and institutional fragmentation... get in the way of needed change” (p. 145).


To combat this condition and to bring the community back in, the authors call for a “democratic devolution revolution,” one in which universities, as “anchor institutions,” serve as the main agent (p. 142). How they conceptualize this is a fascinating exercise in intellectual history on the one hand, and action research on the other, a study of the development of university-school-community partnerships in West Philadelphia and around the world, the former providing the intellectual tools for the latter. The first chapter goes back to one of the fathers of the so-called scientific enlightenment, Sir Francis Bacon, famously an influence on Benjamin Franklin, who appears in the second chapter, and an influence in our own time on progressive educators like William Rainey Harper, Jane Addams, and John Dewey. Curiously enough, Plato and Marx become foils in this discussion with some uncharacteristic formularizing here and there. At the feet of Plato and by extension Socrates is laid the blame for an “old regime of knowledge,” stretching from classical antiquity to the Renaissance, that “had no realization of the transformative potentialities of science” or an “idea of progress either mental or material” (p. 6), which, of course, is simply not the case. Progress toward the good is at the heart of Plato’s cave analogy, and his education of the philosopher king was to begin with the science of numbers and geometry, plane and solid, moving on from there to astronomy, and ending with the dialectic, a teleology if there ever was one (Jowlett, 1937, p. 776; Warmington & Rouse, 1984, p. 324). Bacon, with whom the author’s contrast Plato and others of his kind, for his own part “envisioned and advocated the organization of science as a zone of hierarchically controlled exclusivity” (p. 17). However, what appears at first glance, based on some of these comparisons, to be a critique of the traditional liberal arts, much of it justified, especially its remoteness from real-world problems (not, I would argue, historically but with modernization), is resolved at the end of the book in a salute to inclusive excellence, quoting Carol Geary Schneider on the need for “a new liberal art,” one entailing “integrative learning – focused around big problems and new connections between the academy and science” (p. 145).    


Calling for “sustained and mutually beneficial higher education-community partnerships that not only provide learning for students and faculty but also empower and improve the community at large” (p. 69), the authors describe in great detail historic cases of such efforts. These include the Progressive Era Wharton School of Business, the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps (WEPIC) and its work to create university-assisted community schools (UACS), and the work of the Center for Community Partnership, renamed the Netter Center for Community Partnerships in 2007. Throughout the book, the authors continually harken back to the philosophical origins of the Netter Center in democratic theory, not only in Dewey’s idea of the school as a social center, but in the writings of its three principal architects: Lee Benson, John Puckett, and Ira Harkavy, currently Associate Vice President of the Netter Center and a leader in the globalization of its activities around “initiating community building, convening public discussions, educating public-spirited leaders, offering continuing civic and leadership seminars, and providing a wide range of technical assistance” (p. 142). Chapter Nine provides a real-life example of this latter type of support, the Center’s Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, a partnership between local schools, the community, and the University of Pennsylvania aimed at reducing obesity and improving health not simply through diet and exercise, but by addressing together “systemic social conditions, not the least of which are racial and ethnic disparities in health education and access to affordable healthy foods” (p. 138).


The work of the Netter Center and other partnerships like it suggests a direct relationship between the work of the university and the work of so-called social reconstruction. It envisions the university as an instrument of social reform, deploying its moral, manual, and intellectual resources to help identify and resolve real problems in the world. To be effective, problem-solving must be a collective and collaborative activity involving students, teachers, and the outside community in an open-ended, exploratory process of fact-finding and interpretation, analysis and creative synthesis, the goal being to help students “in reciprocal partnership with the community” to “understand the root causes of social problems,” principles worked out at a meeting in 1989 at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin (p. 76). Principles like this, the authors emphasize, have enforced a subtle but important shift in the meaning of service learning from what students can gain from learning in the community to how, knowing the causes of this problem or that, they can contribute to democratic and sustainable solutions.


This is not to say, they caution, that learning is not taking place on all sides of the equation. Harold Rugg put it nicely in 1931 when he wrote of “the task of making every social agency in the community conscious of its educational possibilities and determined to live up to its obligations” (p. 281). This task is the mission of higher education, “the strategic subsystem of society” (p. 21). And yet, as the authors also make clear, higher education has lost its way. In the process of pursuing the growth of specialized knowledge, it has lost sight of a common core of knowledge and a body of common experience without which a society tends to disintegrate into a mere aggregation of individuals. The function of the university is not merely to prepare students to get better jobs and make more money. Nor is it merely to cultivate the intellect or to pursue the truth for its own sake. The university's primary function, “the great Aim and End of all Learning” and “the ultimate goal of education” itself was, as Franklin pointed out in the opening years of the American Republic, to develop the “inclination” and with it “the ability” to provide service to all humanity (p. 23). Lawrence Cremin (1976), the great historian of progressive education, in an obscure, little-known book called Public Education, wrote of the “configurations of education,” the many ways that institutions of an educative nature (church, family, community and so forth) interact with one another whether “complementary or contradictory, consonant or dissonant.” (p. 30) This complex web of entanglements requires an “ecological approach to education,” one that, in Cremin’s words, “views educational institutions and configurations in relation to one another and to the larger society that sustains them and is in turn affected by them” (p. 36).


The focus in recent years on providing job training skills in the last two years of college has helped produce perhaps one of the strangest, and saddest, phenomena of our time: the anti-intellectual university. Society's greatest need from higher education is often the one it most resists: new ideas that recognize a radically altered set of assumptions about culture, science, and economics. Such are the ideas advanced in Knowledge for Social Change, a rare combination of “soil and seminar” to quote Charles McCarthy on the Wisconsin Idea (p. 71). The authors catalogue in rich detail the pioneering efforts of educators and administrators at the University of Pennsylvania to put into practice the ideals of their forebears in progressive education, John Dewey first and foremost among them. Until the Netter Center, these ideals had fallen largely on deaf ears or been transformed beyond recognition. It is this faithfulness to the inseparability of past, present, and future that makes the book a standout in the literature of education and societal change, putting the public back in public education and recalling universities to their special responsibilities here; not as a species of noblesse oblige but to lead and oversee, as Dewey would say, “the reconstruction of face-to-face communities,” a requirement of any real democracy (as cited in Lasch, 1991, p. 368).  



Berlin, I. (2013). The power of ideas (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cremin, L. (1976). Public education. New York, NY: Basic.


Jowett, M. A. (1937). The Dialogues of Plato. New York, NY: Random House.


Lasch, C. (1991). The true and only heaven: Progress and its critics. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.


Rugg, H. (1931). Culture and education in America. New York, NY: Hartcourt, Brace & Co.


Warmington, E. H. & Rouse, P. G. (Eds.). (1984). The great dialogues of Plato. New York, NY: New American Library.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22410, Date Accessed: 11/20/2018 11:51:27 PM

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