As we are at the beginning of a new academic year, I thought it would be appropriate to turn our attention to a topic of some intellectual interest—knowledge creation, appropriation, and dissemination. Ironically, the idea for this two-part blog was sparked while I was taking my summer hiatus away from academic pursuits.
It has been a longstanding tradition for me to break from my routines during the summer months as a way to mentally recharge. My wife and I were finally able to start exploring museums in the City—from the special exhibits at the Met and the New York Public Library, to the guided tours at the Tenement Museum, to Frick Madison, Cooper Hewitt, the Cloisters, MOMA PS1, and the Noguchi. As we wandered and marveled at the incredible human creativity on display, I felt inspired to see different facets of the world that often escape me in the normal rhythm of life. Far too often we are stuck in a particular way of thinking for a period of time, fixated in a certain mindset. I learned years ago that in order to get myself unstuck, I need to explore a completely different set of ideas.
Along with our “neighborhood” museum strolls, I turned to my summer reading list, which included a recent book by physicist Brian Greene, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe. The book is a rare attempt by a scientist to cross-reference and cross-validate different paradigms of thinking from fields as broad as evolutionary biology, anthropology, language, literature, philosophy, history, art, myth, religion, and psychology. Greene’s words took me on a journey, and as I devoured the pages, it felt like a symphony blended with the faint chorus I experienced from the museums and still it lingers in my mind.
So, What’s the Big Idea?
The main theme that runs through the book is the interplay between order—evolution and natural selection that create structures—and disorder—entropy, a tendency of the universe to move toward chaos and disorder. But what captured my attention was the way Greene told his story, which suggests that we—as humans and scholars—approach fundamentally similar questions but do so from widely different perspectives. “Physicists are reductionists and so tend to look beneath complex phenomena for explanations that rely on properties and interactions of simpler constituents,” he wrote. And yet from that reductionist view, he was able to connect what physicists know about time, energy, gravity, and the Big Bang with centuries of discovery from evolutionary biology, consciousness, free will, language, and religion—but through storytelling. Greene explained why he took this approach when he wrote, “Whether reductionist or emergent, whether mathematical or figurative, whether scientific or poetic, we piece together the richest understanding by approaching questions from a range of different perspectives.”
In a previous era, this degree of knowledge layering and synthesizing was enormously difficult or simply impossible. Humanity has reached the point, however, where knowledge is so abundant and easily accessible that we are able to solve some of the greatest puzzles from previous generations. In my pragmatic, engineer’s 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 utilized to help us understand and problem-solve the world around us. But that is easier said than done. Allow me to explain.
My Own Journey
My late father was a physicist, and for the first three years of my college career, I was a physics major. I loved the simplicity, precision, and elegance mathematics provides that quite accurately describes (and predicts) the physical world around us. However, I was not satisfied with the world of matter and had an insatiable appetite to learn about the human mind, emotions, and creative actions. I also wasn’t content with the reductionist approach in understanding the complexities of our world. As a result, I changed my major to engineering and have spent most of my adult life studying complex systems where a multitude of actors interact to create emergent phenomenon. As an academic, I have spent my spare time over the last 40 years reading books in almost any discipline other than physical science and engineering—because I crave to understand how and why people think the way they do.
This is why Greene’s book resonates with me: He came from a physicist’s perspective but had the wisdom to recognize the limitations of his discipline. He never abandoned physics nor his training, but through masterful synthesizing and cross-referencing of knowledge, ingenious storytelling, and gleaning insights from different granularity, scope, and complexity, he demonstrated for us how disciplines can be simultaneously complementary, interconnected, and mutually reaffirming. Greene summarized this beautifully when he wrote, “There’s little to be gained by physicists clamoring that theirs is the most fundamental explanatory framework or from humanists scoffing at the hubris of unbridled reductionism. A refined understanding is gleaned by integrating each discipline’s story into a finely textured narrative.”
This motivated me to think more deeply about the role of universities and what it means to be a scholar, a teacher, and an earnest contributor to the incredible collection of human knowledge.
The Role of Academic Institutions
Most of us who chose to pursue careers in academia were drawn to the intellectual fulfillment and freedom it offers. We enjoy tremendous autonomy in deciding our scholarship areas and career path, and we are free to pursue what we teach in the classroom. At the beginning of my academic career as a junior faculty member, I remember marveling at the fact that I was paid to do what I loved, in exactly the way I chose. How many occupations outside academia offer the privilege of total intellectual independence? Over time, I came to realize that this freedom comes with an awesome responsibility. The academy is designed to be a place that exercises rigorous quality control of information—or insights—that can, and should be, passed along as knowledge. Throughout human history, in almost all cultures, scholars have searched for ways to separate timeless wisdom—knowledge that advances the human frontier—from hearsay, opinions, and beliefs that do not stand the test of time.
My father frequently said, “The world often does not work as it appears, nor in the way we presume.” He showed me—with many stories—that what we presume can be a powerful blinder that deceives us. To overcome that human tendency, we must be careful and patient, not take anything for granted, and do the work to truly understand—never jumping to conclusions without verifying the evidence. And if that is not enough, we must keep an open mind and always be willing to be corrected. I often think of his advice as the fundamental 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 we pass it on to the next generation. Academics and scholars are individuals who spend their lives verifying, scrutinizing, and critiquing other scholars’ ideas, while subjecting their own ideas for 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, devotion, and honesty today.
Approaching the Same Questions from Different Paradigms
The desire to explore and to make sense of our evolving world is instinctive to 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 driven to investigate the unknown or uncharted world around us—but the yearning for new insight and new ways to see our world is the same. At the most fundamental level, we are all going after the same questions. However we approach these questions, it is critical to have the humility to recognize that we are often limited by our own adopted paradigm of thinking—we are only using a particular set of tools in the toolbox.
History taught us that cross-referencing and integrating different disciplinary perspectives has the potential to magnify insight and generate novel solutions to complex problems, achieving far greater advances—even breakthroughs. The benefits are far-ranging across research and scholarship, as well as pedagogy. Changing and expanding our learning this way allows us to engage our students in a different way, helping them connect what they are learning in all their courses. With the awesome accessibility of knowledge, it is perfectly possible for a humanities student to contemplate the philosophical implications of the essential conditions for life to form, for consciousness to emerge, and what that means for our own existence. It is also possible for a student of science, business, or policy to have a better understanding of the human condition, inspiration, and appreciation of the incredible power of creativity and imagination.
In Part II of this blog post next month, I will take a deeper dive into the relationship between knowledge creation, appropriation, and dissemination that could stimulate fresh ideas and shape new thinking for our institutional future.