As we are at the start of a new academic year, I thought it would be appropriate to focus our attention on a subject of some intellectual interest: the creation, appropriation and dissemination of knowledge. Ironically, the idea for this two-part blog came about while I was taking my summer break away from my academic pursuits.
It’s a long-standing tradition for me to break away from my routines during the summer months in order to rejuvenate myself mentally. My wife and I were finally able to start exploring the city’s museums, from special exhibits at the Met and the New York Public Library to tours of the Tenement Museum, including Frick Madison, Cooper Hewitt, the Cloisters, MOMA PS1. , and the Noguchi. As I wandered around and marveled at the incredible human creativity on display, I felt inspired to see different sides of the world that often escape me in the normal pace of life. All too often we are stuck in a particular way of thinking for a while, obsessed with a certain state of mind. I learned years ago that to get off the ground I had to explore a whole different set of ideas.
Along with our walks through the “neighborhood” museums, I turned to my summer reading list, which included a recent book by physicist Brian Greene, Until the end of time: spirit, matter and our search for meaning in an evolving universe. The book is a rare attempt by a scientist to intersect and validate different paradigms of thought in areas as broad as evolutionary biology, anthropology, language, literature, philosophy, history, art, myth, religion and psychology. Greene’s lyrics took me on a journey, and as I devoured the pages it sounded like a symphony mixed with the faint chorus I experienced in museums and it still lingers in my mind.
So what’s the big idea?
The main theme that runs through the book is the interaction between order – evolution and natural selection that create structures – and disorder – entropy, a tendency of the universe to go towards chaos and disorder. . But what caught my attention was the way Greene told his story, which suggests that we as humans and academics approach fundamentally similar questions but do so from very different perspectives. “Physicists are reductionists and therefore tend to look for explanations under complex phenomena that rely on the properties and interactions of simpler constituents,” he wrote. And yet, from this reductionist perspective, he was able to link what physicists know about time, energy, gravity, and the Big Bang with centuries of discovery of evolutionary biology, consciousness, the free arbiter, language and religion, but through storytelling. Greene explained why he took this approach when he wrote: “Whether reductionist or emergent, mathematical or figurative, scientific or poetic, we bring together the richest understanding by addressing the questions from different angles.
In earlier times, this degree of superposition and synthesis of knowledge was extremely difficult or simply impossible. However, humanity has reached the point where knowledge is so abundant and readily available that we are able to solve some of the greatest puzzles of previous generations. In my pragmatic and engineering way of thinking: As branches of knowledge are demystified and become easily accessible, different branches of human knowledge start to look like toolboxes that can be used to help us understand and to solve the problems of the world around us. But that’s easier said than done. Let me explain.
My own trip
My late father was a physicist and for the first three years of my academic career I was a physics student. I loved the simplicity, precision, and elegance of mathematics, which describes (and predicts) quite accurately the physical world around us. However, I was not satisfied with the material world and had an insatiable appetite for more about the human mind, emotions, and creative actions. I was also not happy with the reductionist approach to understanding the complexities of our world. As a result, I changed my engineering specialization and spent most of my adult life studying complex systems where a multitude of actors interact to create an emerging phenomenon. As an academic I have spent my free time for the past 40 years reading books in almost every discipline other than physical science and engineering because I want to understand how and why people think like they do.
This is why Greene’s book resonates with me: it came from a physicist’s perspective but had the wisdom to recognize the limits of his discipline. He never gave up on physics or his training, but through masterful synthesis and cross-referencing of knowledge, ingenious storytelling, and ideas of varying granularity, scope and complexity, he demonstrated to us how disciplines can be at the same time complementary, interconnected and mutually reasserting. . Greene summed this up beautifully when he wrote: “There is not much to be gained if physicists claim theirs is the most basic explanatory framework or if humanists scoff at the pride of unbridled reductionism. A refined understanding is gleaned by integrating the history of each discipline into a finely textured narrative.
It motivated me to think more deeply about the role of universities and what it means to be a scholar, teacher and serious contributor to the incredible collection of human knowledge.
The role of academic institutions
Most of us who have chosen to pursue a career in academia have been drawn to the intellectual growth and freedom it offers. We have a great deal of autonomy in deciding our areas of scholarship and our career path, and we are free to continue what we teach in the classroom. Early in my college career as a junior faculty member, I remember marveling at the fact that I was getting paid to do what I loved, exactly as I chose. How many professions outside academia offer the privilege of total intellectual independence? Over time, I realized that with this freedom comes a huge responsibility. The academy is designed to be a place that exercises rigorous quality control over the information – or ideas – that can and should be imparted as knowledge. Throughout human history, in nearly every culture, researchers have looked for ways to separate timeless wisdom – the knowledge that advances the human frontier – from hearsay, opinions, and beliefs that don’t resist. the test of time.
My father often said, “The world often does not work as it appears, or the way we assume. He has shown me – with many stories – that what we assume can be a powerful blinkerer that deceives us. To overcome this human tendency, we need to be careful and patient, take nothing for granted, and do the work to really understand – never jump to conclusions without checking the evidence. And if that’s not enough, we have to keep an open mind and always be ready to be corrected. I often think of his advice as the basic idea of an academy. It is the most crucial and sacred responsibility of an academic institution: to safeguard and protect the integrity of knowledge before passing it on to the next generation. Scholars and scholars are individuals who spend their lives verifying, scrutinizing, and criticizing the ideas of other scholars, while submitting their own ideas to others to do the same. The system has worked well for hundreds of years, and it is more important than ever to exercise that rigor, dedication and honesty today.
Address the same questions from different paradigms
The desire to explore and make sense of our changing world is instinctive for our species, connecting us to each other and to our collective human heritage. Some of us are drawn to the study of human conditions, imagination and creation, while others are drawn to investigate the unknown or unexplored world around us, but the desire for new perspectives and new ways of seeing our world is the same. At the most fundamental level, we all grapple with the same issues. However we approach these questions, it is essential to have the humility to recognize that we are often limited by our own adopted paradigm of thought – we only use one particular set of tools in the box. tools.
History has taught us that cross-referencing and integrating different disciplinary perspectives has the potential to amplify knowledge and generate new solutions to complex problems, achieving much greater breakthroughs and even breakthroughs. The benefits are considerable for research and scholarship, as well as for pedagogy. Changing and expanding our learning in this way allows us to engage our students in a different way, helping them to connect what they learn in all of their classes. With the incredible accessibility of knowledge, it is perfectly possible for a humanities student to contemplate the philosophical implications of the conditions essential to the formation of life, the emergence of consciousness and what it means for our own. existence. It is also possible for a student of science, business or politics to gain a better understanding of the human condition, inspiration and appreciation of the incredible power of creativity and imagination.
In part two of this blog post next month, I will delve deeper into the relationship between creating, owning, and disseminating knowledge that could spark new ideas and shape new thinking for our institutional future.