Speaking Out

Penn's Role in West Philadelphia

My family and I have lived in University City for 23 years and have seen crime waves come and go, but never have things been worse than they are now. The University has made earnest efforts to address the situation, but these have been short-term efforts--a private police force, commuter shuttles--that do not get at the root of the problem and in some cases make it worse, emptying the streets of pedestrians and fostering a siege mentality.

The problem of West Philadelphia is economic, social, and intellectual. People of prime crime age don't have jobs, and families and schools are not socializing them as citizens. University researchers have gotten out of the habit of making the dynamics of urban neighborhoods their business.

As the largest employer and one of the largest consumers in Philadelphia, the University has the economic muscle to do something serious about promoting commerce and small business in its neighborhood. A pilot project in the Shaw School has demonstrated what might be done on a larger scale in neighborhood schools.

And could not the University provide incentives to its outstanding faculty in the natural and social sciences to turn the problems of urban neighborhoods into innovative and fruitful research problems? This happened at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, and as a result the social sciences enjoyed a golden era of intellectual innovation by such scholars as Robert E. Park. It could happen again in our own neighborhood, but not unless the University as a whole decides to make it its business to make it happen.

The history of science suggests that the natural and social sciences are intellectually most vigorous when they bring together the methods of basic research with realworld problems. The history of the environmental sciences is particularly rich in such cases. Left to themselves, academic disciplines tend to turn inward toward abstract and theoretical concerns that have much to do with the process of making academic careers but little to do with understanding the problems of people and neighborhoods. Unrelieved attention to practical problem solving is not good for basic research either, but the longterm health of academic work requires a return from time to time from the abstract and universal to the concrete and local. Now is such a time.

Recent absurdities in the "culture wars" and "science wars" suggest that the academic retreat into the abstract has reached its limit and may soon reverse. And in this context, West Philadelphia's problems seem as much an opportunity as a threat: a here-and-now chance to bring the intellectual resources of the University into fruitful contact with significant problems and thereby bring new life to a neglected and degraded urban environment and to a detached and discredited academic culture.

Specifically: the University could underwrite a system of grants for research on the problems of its own neighborhood. It could begin serious planning for local industrial development based on its existing research strengths, for example, in biomedicine and biotechnology. And it could make it a policy that any new construction on campus (e.g., laboratories) be dedicated in part to work on local urban problems.

-- Robert E. Kohler, Professor of History & Sociology of Science


Volume 43 Number 14
December 3, 1996

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