Reclaiming the Value of Knowledge in Public Life

by Robert Pondiscio
January 6th, 2009

It’s time to reclaim the value of knowledge in our political and civic life, argues UCLA professor Mike Rose.  Not merely academic knowledge, but broad, practical know-how that enables people to solve problems.  Rose’s 2004 book, The Mind at Work, argued that cognitive ability, including perception, judgment, memory and knowledge, is employed daily in blue-collar trades.  He posts a rumination on America’s “complicated relationship with knowledge gained through formal education” at Education Week, noting long-standing suspicions about advanced education among the working class, and vice-versa. 

Related to this cultural conflict is the age-old tension between practical life, experience, and common sense, on the one side, and schooling, book learning, and intellectual pursuits, on the other. The historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life chronicles this antagonism, and the gradual ascendance of school-based expertise in the nation’s culture. But the contrary position still holds strong. My cousin is fond of repeating an old saying, “It took a guy with a college degree to screw this up and a guy with a high school degree to fix it.”  

But according to Rose, “school knowledge” is respected and desired by working people. “The problem is more in the bearing of the person who embodies that knowledge. Did formal education bring with it condescension, arrogance, aloofness?“  He holds out hope that we can move past a politics that exploited such condescension and ends ”the substitution of political loyalty for expertise, feeling for rationality, and the cherry-picking of facts for analysis of evidence.”

It’s time to reclaim for politics the value of knowledge, to step into our cultural tangles and find common cognitive ground. Think of what it would mean for our civic life to affirm the bedrock value of knowledge—many kinds of knowledge, machinist’s to pediatrician’s—to affirm the wide range of ways people gain and apply knowledge, solve problems, think their way through their daily lives.