At a forum honoring the University Librarys 250th anniversary on Alumni Weekend, three world-renowned panelists grappled with the question, Knowledge: What for?
They consisted of Nobel Laureate Laurence R. Klein, Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus of Economics; Mary Ann Hopkins, an attending physician at Bellevue Hospital, New York University Medical Center, and a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders, which won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize; and Ian McHarg, winner of the Japan Prize for city planning and professor emeritus of landscape architecture.
The following are excerpts of their remarks.
After working with Doctors Without Borders, however, ... the library no longer seems a repository to me. Instead, I see it as a node in a network of knowledge a network that links the studies of academic centers to the actions performed on humanitarian missions. ...
The medical situation currently in the countries that I have been in, although what we would consider abysmal no ventilators, no blood tests, et cetera still is much, much better than even medicine here in the 50s, because weve been able to take our knowledge and use some of that in a limited capacity ... and translate that into, in fact, helping these people. ...
Currently, Doctors Without Borders has committed itself to the goal of educating and convincing drug companies, politicians and the world at large of the need to make certain crucial drugs affordable and available to the Third World populations that are suffering in epidemic proportion from diseases like AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and sleeping sickness. ...
The fruits of knowledge, particularly those to alleviate misery and suffering, must be shared by all. To Doctors Without Borders, this is a moral and ethical imperative.
So my answer to todays question, then, is: Knowledge is for action knowledge to try and change the world around us. ... If we are lucky, this knowledge will not only consist of facts, but will include some moral guidance to steer actions toward the improvement of humankind.
I made a whole career out of taking existing knowledge about the environment ... and making it available. ... We had to find out how the bloody place came to be what it was, how it worked and where it was going, whatever it was. ...
And so we proceeded to find out that people are systematically raping their landscape. ...Increased world population, increased numbers of megacities, world warming and a reduction in petroleum constitute a massive challenge for survival, [requiring] all the wisdom, all the intelligence we can possibly use.
One of my colleagues ... has always noted that he is seeking fresh candidates [for graduate programs] who have the fire in their bellies the burning sensation to learn, to gain knowledge of economic affairs to the point at which they can help shape a better society either by teaching, research or public service.
My earliest economic experience as a student, formed by growing up in Nebraska during the Great Depression of the 1930s, ... basically drove me to seek explanations for that difficult period to gain understanding of what went wrong and to work with society so as to not return again to the conditions of the Great Depression. I also found that colleagues who grew up in middle Europe in the earlier generation of the 1920s felt the problems of inflation in the same way that I felt the problems of the economic depression. This drove many brilliant young minds to advanced studies of economics in our great universities.
Its unfortunate that knowledge is being sought by the present generation of economics students for somewhat different motivations. It is getting more and more difficult to detect fire in the belly to gain knowledge for its own sake, or for use in the service of society. ... Many of our students, not all, ... seek knowledge in order to increase their own economic well being.
Originally published on June 1, 2000