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E-M:/ Knowledge for What? Will Tom Dietz succeed at MSU?

The Circuits of Knowledge
In 1939 the renowned sociologist Robert Lynd wrote a book that is as relevant today as the moment he penned it, "Knowledge for What? The Place of Social Science in American Culture." In it he said that, "the role of the social sciences to be troublesome, to disconcert the habitual arrangements by which we manage to live along, and to demonstrate the possibility of change in more adequate directions. . .like that of a skilled surgeon, [social scientists need to] get us into immediate trouble in order to prevent our present troubles from becoming even more dangerous. In a culture in which power is normally held by the few and used offensively and defensively to bolster their instant advantage within the status quo, the role of such a constructive troublemaker is scarcely inviting. . ." 

But then when has the march towards social justice ever been a cakewalk? It requires risks. Not that educational theory, philosophy and social science are bastions of risk and constructive troublemaking. Educational theorist Paulo Freire has rebuked traditional education for its predominant "banking model" of pedagogy in which teachers spoon feed predigested answers to students, making so many banking deposits into their brains for later withdrawal. Adorno, the brilliant author of "Minima Moralia," critiques the illusory certitudes of positivist philosophy (the dominant branch) by reminding us that,

"knowledge comes to us through a network of prejudices, opinions, innervations, self-corrections, presuppositions, and exaggerations, in short, through the dense, but firmly founded but by no means uniformly transparent, medium of experience." (Adorno, p. 80)  

Arthur Kinoy, a founder of the National Lawyers Guild, would agree. A constructive troublemaker, Kinoy liked to engage students by quoting a revolutionary named Jefferson. "Thomas Jefferson used to say, there are not three branches of government, there are four. There is the executive, the judicial and the legislative and then there's the fourth branch and the fourth branch is supreme. The fourth branch is the people." You can see and hear Kinoy speak this directly through the good work of the Museum of Broadcast Communication which presents, via the internet, the entire 50 minute 1993 documentary, "Doing Justice: The Life and Trials of Arthur Kinoy." 

Ralph Nader concurs with this overall sentiment. Taking a page out of Lynd he notes that,  "the world is spinning out of control and there is a lot of institutional insanity. . . .but most professionals tie themselves up in conceptual knots, which imprison them." Nader laments the poor record of university professors at countering official propaganda, and their avoidance of confronting the big moral questions. "In law school I had a course on landlord/tenant rights," he said, "but we never got to the tenants' part of it. If we don't ask the questions about justice they never get answered."

Are we asking the right questions? Is critical knowledge circulating where it should?

Lansing is home to the state capitol, Michigan State University and General Motors, major institutions that harbor thousands of highly educated minds. And yet, how well does the knowledge dance around? .

In an effort, it is said, to help "improve communication" between hundreds of environmental specialists, MSU announced, on February 21, 2003 that it had hired Thomas Dietz "to lead MSU's quest to coordinate its efforts in environmental sciences under one program."

In some ways, not much has changed in 60 years. As Lynd said then,

"Never before have our data been so imposing in quantity and refinement. And yet, never before have the lacunae been so devastatingly apparent. The comfortable old assumed process of separate scientific disciplines, growing each from the center outward toward its fellows and thus filling in the gaps, is either not working or not working fast enough to provide a social science corpus on which a floundering world can rely. (Lynd, 1939, pp. 16, 17)"

There must be a way out. . . .

Come hear what Brian McKenna has to say on this topic at MSU's "Vision of an Alternative Future, Campus Wide Conversations" sponsored by Terry Link's University Committee/Office of Campus Sustainability. See:


McKenna will be speaking on the topic, "Why is there so much Environmental Illiteracy in Michigan and What Can we do about it?"


Brian McKenna (hey, I just want to get the word out!)