Harry Boyte on Beyond the Knowledge Wars

Harry Boyte, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, spoke to the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum on the topic Beyond the Knowledge Wars. The event was held at the Hosmer Public Library in Minneapolis.

Boyte began by discussing the cult of the expert, the ultimate outgrowth of the philosophical positivism and objectivism that dominated intellectual culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Objectivity became the byword for intellectual investigation, demanding the removal of all self-interest or awareness from the research process. He summed this up by the advice he once heard given to a sociology Ph.D. - “never research a topic that you are interested in.” The fear of contamination by personal biases and interests pushed academia to extol research over outreach.

There have been many critics of this ethos of detachment, but so far their impact has been minimal. The administration of the University of Minnesota bought into the “ponzi scheme of becoming the third best public research university in the world.” The result was the closing of general college. Further back in time Boyte described some of the changes to the coop-extension program which was transformed away from community building into an expert service provider. Another current of resistance was the tradition of the land grant colleges.

The cult of the expert is expressed in politics as mobilizing - get out the vote, door knocking and canvassing, robo-calls. It is the dominant political formula of our time. Mobilization was originally the strategy of the left, but now all politicians use it. It begins by defining an enemy, frames the issue as good versus evil using a simplified script, and then distributes it to the masses with the subtext that the masses are being victimized. It is the Nader and the PIRG formula, and recently it has been the Rove, Gingrich, and Beck formula. The problem with this view is that it treats people as stereotypes, labels, or abstractions. How will the Southern white male respond to message X? What will the soccer mom think of this commercial?

The apotheosis of this form of politics was seen in 2008 when Mark Penn told Hillary Clinton that the only way she could win was by accusing Obama of being a terrorist sympathizer. Clinton stepped back from that edge. John McCain had a similar moment when he took the microphone from the woman in Minneapolis who accused Obama of being an Arab.

The antidote to this problem, according to Boyte, is an organizing paradigm, a viewpoint that acknowledges the “irreversible, plurality of the human condition.” It is a return to the original meaning of politics - how to deal with people different than the self.

Boyte offered some positive examples of resistance, such as the recent work by the Centers for Disease Control to promote community resilience, or the shift among development economists from only talking about government and market solutions to talking about community power. In St. Paul there is the Jane Addams School for Democracy connecting college students and immigrants and at the University of Minnesota William Doherty is working on a program for citizen professionals.

I basically agree with Mr. Boyte’s critique of the current situation, but the examples of hope seem very small bore compared to the scale of the challenge. I asked him about the reaction to his work among the business community and he basically said that he hadn’t presented the ideas to them. There were some local business alliances working on citizen business issues, such as the Citizens League and Target Corporation, but the overall scope was small.

The question I should have asked is how this message is going to be carried into the suburbs. I support his goals and the programs he works on, like the Jane Addams school and democracy promotion in Africa, but I see the center of the action as the suburbs for two reasons. Practically, the suburbs are where elections are currently won and lost in America. If we can’t convince suburbanites of this critique and the need for a more democratic form of education then change may never come. Ideologically, the problem is there are so few people in the suburbs who know what democracy. We, in the suburbs, are the ultimate ignorant consumers of government service. The attitude is “give me my driver’s license as rapidly as possible and then get out of my way, I need to go to work and pick up the kids for soccer practice.” There is very little citizenship in the suburbs, nor is there very much community.

The vision of a cocreative, relational, community-based future of education is enticing. I look forward to helping to build that future with Mr. Boyte.