Penn teach-in asks: What’s a university for?

Last night, the University of Pennsylvania did something it hasn’t done in 50 years, something radical.

A teach-in. This teach-in is the university’s first since 1969.

I was in the audience listening, taking notes, and clicking terrible photos. But, mostly, I was listening. Something many of us are struggling with lately, and something Penn wants us to do more often and more openly.

That’s one reason the faculty senate chose to host this teach-in: to open a dialogue that engages with the public. All too often lately, the public has seen universities as intellectual bubbles insulated from the “real” world. People have begun to wonder, “What’s a university for?”

That’s precisely the question this teach-in seeks to answer.

Last night’s opening session was called Knowledge Production, Communication, and Impact in the 21st Century. The session included a panel moderated by Tracey Matisak of WHYY. In keeping with Penn’s commitment to interdisciplinary studies, the panelists came from diverse academic backgrounds.

John Jackson Jr is an anthropologist and the Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice. Dorothy Roberts is a professor of Law and Sociology who is the founding Director of the Program on Race, Science, and Society. Sarah Tishkoff is a professor of Genetics and Biology whose appointments include the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts and Sciences.

Despite their different backgrounds, they all agree on one thing: race is not biological; it’s cultural. How they confront the questions raised about race in their discipline varies. How they communicate that message also differs. Professor Jackson uses film, Professor Roberts uses Twitter, and Professor Tishkoff uses PowerPoint. These different communication technologies reflect their own communication styles, and those styles reflect how they think about knowledge.

From seeing knowledge dissemination as storytelling, to thinking about how to integrate ideas creatively, to confronting our own sense of reality, each panelist’s philosophy of knowledge reflects and informs how they produce and communicate that knowledge.

For me, the most powerful moment of the night and the one that answered the question of “What are universities for?” came during Professor Roberts’ speech. In her research, she has explored the relationship between biology and social inequality. For her, these two elements loop and feed into each other. She cited the example of Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a nineteenth-century physician who studied at Penn. His research with a spirometer, which measures lung capacity, led him to argue that blacks had lower lung capacities than whites. He then used his findings to justify slavery. Here, biology feeds social inequality. This finding has been perpetuated throughout the literature and remains a problem in modern spirometers. Here, social inequality feeds biology. Professor Roberts made a strong, cogent critique of Cartwright’s idea.

Such critiques are what universities are for. In universities, scholars can openly criticize ideas, including those held by alumni of the very university in which they are standing. As our approach to knowledge changes, and our methodologies change, the nature of knowledge itself changes. As repositories of knowledge, universities must encourage their faculty, staff, students, and the public to interrogate existing knowledge and create new knowledge.

While working on My Name Is Alex, I created a world in which knowledge was banned. I had to confront how we view knowledge and why some seem to fear it.

The essential problem is that what I think constitutes knowledge (books), and what you think constitutes knowledge (cable news) are not the same. Moreover, our definitions of knowledge are in flux as we move into a post-literate world. Ironically, it seems to be those who consider themselves open-minded who cling to these older, physical definitions of knowledge. Those who are often viewed as closed-minded are more willing to accept new knowledge sources while simultaneously rejecting the technology associated with these sources. Thus, neither side accepts the other’s foundational doctrines about knowledge. That’s where the relationship between knowledge and culture enters into the conversation, and we end up talking past each other.

This Thursday at 11:30 am, the Graduate School of Education is hosting a session called “Left, Right, Center: Can We Talk?” that will offer some solutions to restarting our dialogues across the political spectrum.

The University of Pennsylvania Teach-In runs through Thursday, March 22, 2018. All events are free and open to the public, with some family-friendly events.

You can watch the promotional video for more details about the programs offered.

For the complete schedule, visit http://www.upenn.edu/teachin/#schedule.

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