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What is knowledge and how does its conceptualization affect faculty priorities?

One of the scholar’s roles is to contribute to the store of knowledge. But which kind of knowledge?

The distinction is often drawn between basic research—seeking knowledge for its own sake—and applied research—acquiring or refining knowledge by applying it in a real-world setting. Clearly, basic research is essential. Many examples exist of important research that at the time it was undertaken did not have an immediate or even potential application.

But is this distinction really viable? The British mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, believed it isn’t. He wrote, 

Applications are part of the knowledge. …Unapplied knowledge is knowledge shorn of its meaning.  Careful shielding of a university from the activities of the world…is the best way to chill interest and to defeat progress.

Similarly, Donald Schön, Ford Professor Emeritus at MIT, suggests that we should stop thinking of “practice” (i.e., working in a real-world setting) as simply a kind of laboratory setting for the application of knowledge. Instead, we should see that “practice leads to the generation of knowledge… We should ask…what kinds of knowing are already embedded in competent practice?”

We can grant that the knowledge generated by work carried out in real-world settings differs from that produced by the analytical and reductive strategies of inquiry based on the model of the natural sciences.  But it is knowledge nonetheless.  Specifically, it is the kind of knowledge—”know-how”—that people must rely upon to make decisions in response to the needs and problems facing their communities.  Society needs both knowledge gained through practical efforts to address needs and problems, and knowledge generated by scholars working in multiple subject matters and employing various modes of analysis.

Former University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Anderson has suggested that the concept of practical reason could form the basis for an integrated educational experience that addresses the tension between the public’s expectations of higher education and the university’s traditional scholarly concerns. Practical reason is the activity of systematically reflecting on practice for the purpose of improving that practice. Practical reason is inductive; it doesn’t rely on theoretical models and the solutions they imply. Rather, it looks at what is and endeavors to do things better.

Anderson contends that the university’s distinctive purpose is to explore the “possibilities of the mind.” Its essential task, therefore, is to “manufacture ways of thinking.” But it’s not so important what the academy knows as the way it knows it. Hence the focus of education should be less on the object of inquiry and more on “how thought can work better.” Its pedagogical aim, accordingly, should be to explore and transmit habits of thought that work best in comprehending the world and deciding how to act in it. Each discipline has a special contribution to make to the development of practical reason.

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