The Emergence of the Global University: Building Collaborative Networks for Integral Learning

The Local Societies Initiative program funded its first dialogue groups in the fall of 2001.  Since then, members of over 100 societies from around the world have joined the global network dedicated to fostering the constructive engagement of science and religion.  As the program enters its fourth year, it is a good time to reflect on the purpose of this network, the obstacles it has had to overcome, and a vision for the future.

The first question we should address concerns the status of the science and religion dialogue itself.  Both within and outside of the body of scholars who address questions arising at the intersection of science and religion, the dialogue itself is seen to be “marginal” or somehow non-standard.  I believe that this is a mistake.  In historical and institutional terms, there may be some truth in this conception – mainly due to the trajectory of Enlightenment thought, democratic revolution, and seemingly ever-increasing “secularization.”  However, science and religion are, in principle, the two main paths humans travel on the journey towards understanding themselves and the cosmos.  However much they differ in approach, and despite the fact that each is after different pieces of the “puzzle,” both science and religion strive at exploring and dealing with the deepest, most fundamental questions that arise for us.  Both want to know the truth.  Far from being a “marginal” interest, science-and-religion (broadly construed, of course) goes right to the heart of humanistic learning.  We should not confuse (or ignore) the political and institutional appropriations of our deepest longing for knowledge and wisdom with that longing itself.  We do so at our peril. 

It cannot be denied that we have benefited from the separation of “science” from “religion” – if by this we mean that the scientific method and the freedom to pursue questions in accordance with it were wrested from theological presuppositions and ecclesiastical control.  Science cannot always predict from where its questions will come, and cannot abide pre-determined answers.  Further, we have certainly benefited from the specialization of bodies of knowledge and the formations of the various academic disciplines (we’ve come a long way from the Trivium and the Quadrivium!).

Just a couple blocks from my office is the Universityof Pennsylvania.  Penn lists 55 departments in its school of Arts and Sciences.  The Biology department (as distinct from the Biochemistry, the Biological Basis of Behavior, and the Biophysics departments) lists 5 concentrations for undergraduate majors:  Computational Biology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Mathematical Biology, Molecular Biology, and Neuroscience.  The Physics and Astronomy department offers undergraduate concentrations in Advanced Physical Theory and Experimental Techniques, Chemical Principles, Computer Techniques, Astrophysics, and Business and Technology.  I offer these examples from the lowest level of post-secondary education to simply hint at the greater levels of specialization and complexification that develop in graduate programs in all these fields.  It is commonplace to say that people from one side of the hall in any philosophy, psychology, sociology, mathematics – you name it – department cannot understand the work of a colleague on the other side.  When I was just a toddler, I went to “The Doctor” – in fact, “The Doctor” came to my house – no matter what ailed me.  As a teenager, I was able to be seen by the “Ears, Nose, and Throat Specialist.”  Now I can go to the Rhinologist, or to the Primary Ciliary Dyskinesiologist, or to the Tympanoplastic Surgeon, or (someday) to the Otolaryngic Gerontologist.  And this is, generally, a very good thing.  As we have specialized, we have increased our power over ignorance and our command over nature.

But this isolation of science results in a conflation of science with technology (not to mention technology with commercial interest).  And our obsession with disciplinarity has come at the price of our inability to synthesize our knowledge.  In our highly sophisticated “Babel,” we have lost a feel for the wholeness of wisdom to which knowledge was always meant to contribute.  It is the cost we pay for the benefits of specialization and the division of labor. 

It has come to seem easy to mock new-age-y sounding quests for “holistic knowledge” or “integral wisdom,” but the ease with which we dismiss such terms is a symptom of a greater though perhaps more subtle disease, a dis-ease, a difficulty in our being able to say what we know now that we know so many specific, sophisticated, disciplinarily distinct things.  By its very trans-disciplinary methodology, the science and religion dialogue has begun – only the barest of beginnings, it is true – to indicate a way to recapture a view of the “forest” beyond the “trees.”  It is not, to be sure, simply a matter of wiping away disciplinary boundaries – this would be a mistake, and it would be impossible anyway.  We think via distinctions.  But a cross-border dialogue, with its concomitant necessity of finding or founding a language for that conversation, begins to offer a place (or places) to stand to get the broader view.

In fact, the rise of the science and religion dialogue will have a very salutary effect on the future health of specific disciplines.  Take philosophy, for instance.  Currently physicists tend not to be very comfortable having philosophers of science describe for them what they, the physicists, do (or worse: ought to do!).  Physicists balk at the suggestion that the discipline of philosophy holds a privileged place from which the “truth of physics” can be discerned.  The main complaint is that philosophers of science do not really know science (that goes double for theologians!), that instead they are caught up in abstractly developed “metaphysical” conceptions into which physics, in fact, does not neatly fit.

The requirement of a common language for trans-disciplinary dialogue points to the urgent need for a renewal of metaphysics.  The “death” or the “overcoming” of metaphysics is just another symptom of the disease being described in this little essay, a dis-ease which goes by the name “postmodernism” or “post-enlightenment” or (in darker moments) “nihilism.”  Both main trajectories of contemporary philosophy, the so-called Anglo-American Analytic “school” and the “Contemporary Continentalist” school, are equally captivated by both an analytic excessiveness and an obsession with “language” as some sort of “objective” entity for study.  In the sense I intend it, despite their obvious stylistic differences, both Willard van Orman Quine and Jacques Derrida, for example, ought to be considered analytic (with a small “a”) philosophers, exhibiting deep similarities in the ultimate import of their work.  Both offer significant and sustained critiques of “metaphysics,” by which they would mean some sort of a priori articulation of the fundamental structure being.

Again, I do not deny that significant benefits have resulted from this analysis of language and the critique of metaphysics—but at a cost!  I believe the purely analytic approach to philosophical questions has reached a stage of exhaustion and that the costs have come to outweigh the benefits.  True, the critique of metaphysics has in some ways gotten the philosophers of science “off the backs” of the physicists, i.e., (analytic) philosophy no longer has a privileged place of critique of science.  But this has come at the price of denying the objectivity and truth of physics at all (i.e., physics is “just another language game”).  The participants in the science and religion dialogue will not be able to rely solely on the current methodologies of either the Analysts or the Deconstructors (though they should not ignore the lessons learned from their pursuits); rather, those engaged in trans-disciplinary explorations will have to admit the necessity for a constructive or reconstructive or integral or holistic metaphysical language if their work is to bear fruit.  This in turn will bring philosophy as a discipline back to Wilfred Sellars’ rich definition of the field:  “the attempt to see how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term.”  And that will require a revitalized metaphysical approach to fundamental questions.

There are further benefits to the science and religion dialogue.  In addition to promoting inter-religious understanding, a corollary benefit of the science and religion dialogue is its value for increasing religious or theological self-knowledge.  Straight-forward inter-religious theological dialogue, undertaken to advance mutual understanding and peace, can only go so far.  In the end, different religions remain irremediably different.  Theological terminology from different religions run up against each other not long into the dialogue, preventing further development of conversation.  However, in the science and religion dialogue it is common for adherents of different faiths (even if those faiths are not known as “religions”) to turn away from direct confrontation to direct their gaze towards a “third,” be it the natural world, issues in technology, the concept of the human person, or bioethical challenges—among many other matters.  In doing so, these participants in the science and religion dialogue bring their religious conceptions and commitments to the table with them.  These concepts and commitments become manifest at an even richer level in proportion as they are not articulated in a head-on fashion.  Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Secular Humanists – you name it – can collectively engage endlessly in the exploration of the cosmos, the community, and consciousness.

But even within single religions, like Christianity, theological differences abound (is there even really a single thing called “Christianity”?).  According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (David B. Barrett) there are over 10,000 distinct religions.  Within Christianity, there are anywhere from 20,800 to 33,830 Christian denominations, depending on who you ask.  They cannot all talk to each other, either!  As with inter-religious dialogue, inter-denominational dialogue can quickly (sometimes even more quickly) run into dead-ends of theological cross-talk (pardon the pun).  However, within the science and religion dialogue, the turning away from head-on theological debate into competent and sophisticated explorations of the universe and its constituents expands the possibilities for mutual understanding and acceptance.  And in both cases – as we saw in the disciplinary transformations and advances possible with this dialogue – the various religions and denominations can become better adept at self-understanding and maturation.  The science and religion dialogue helps us to know what it is we believe and why – across the board, theologically and epistemologically.

This brings me to the role and the value of the Local Societies Initiative (LSI) program.  Readers of these pages are certainly familiar by now with LSI.  The network of LSI societies has a diverse membership reflecting the international, interdisciplinary, interfaith nature of the science and religion dialogue as a whole.  The variety of institutional types supporting the formation of LSI societies is indicative of the growing recognition of the importance – indeed, the centrality – of this dialogue in a myriad of educational settings.  LSI societies are can be found on the campuses of major research universities, both national and international; elite liberal arts colleges; for-profit educational institutions; seminaries; state universities; private religious schools; graduate academies; and churches.  The scope of the fundamental or foundation questions considered, the multiplicity of perspectives afforded, and the variety of activities sponsored by LSI societies is unparalleled.  As this network of independent societies continues to grow, so do our chances for developing the requisite metaphysical languages for dialogue, and for uncovering new spiritual information, new scientific and theological insights, and new innovative solutions to our most pressing intellectual, moral, ecological, and even social issues.

When the program first was launched, we had the expectation that LSI would spur conversation and exploration on key issues via independently existing membership societies around the globe.  And that has certainly happened!  However, we have come to see that the real value, the real appeal for participating members and their home institutions, is not only the regular activities of their own society, but the network of these societies, the new lines of communication, the new relationships – geographical, institutional, personal, topical – the new opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration and for trans-disciplinary research.  The ever-growing network of societies has even greater value than the sum of its parts.

I like to refer to this LSI network as a “chaordic system.”  The term “chaordic” is a neologism coined by Dee Hock, formerly a key leader of the Visa (credit card) Corporation.  As the term implies, there is a combination of both chaos and order in the LSI network.  Each society is independently administered, independently co-funded with institutional support, and independently exploring and investigating questions as they have arisen in each specific context.  We learned quickly that there really is no such thing as “The Science-and-Religion Dialogue,” as if it were one monolithic field of study.  There are always only sciences (plural) and religions (plural) – pluralities of pluralities.  The questions, the methods, the context, the presuppositions, the terminological and metaphysical commitments employed in the exploration of a question at the intersection of science and religion are not the same in northern Pakistan as in Taiwan or in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, or in St. Paul, Minnesota.  But there is at least some minimum of a “fusion of horizons” such that the LSI program is able to tap into a collective understanding of the questions at the center of humanistic learning.  We help bring an “order” of sorts to the undertaking, not so much by standardizing the dialogue but in the sense of securing a place at the tables of discussion for all competent and committed comers.  But the very existence of the variety of the societies and their different approaches helps to generate new and sometimes unexpected higher standards for eliciting the best work from each society (and it is to be hoped, from each member of each society).  The LSI network is thus transforming itself from being a loose confederation of individually dynamic associations into being a dynamic, chaordic, collaborative system of investigation and insight.

What are the possibilities for such a network, for such an international, inter-religious, inter-disciplinary “entity” (of a sort)? 

If I may be permitted to wax prophetic, for a moment, I would say that the educational and cultural world is moving towards a new renaissance.  There is a synergistic relationship between institutions and knowledge/wisdom.  The seeds of the Enlightenment were planted in the rise of urban universities in the 13th century in key centers such as Paris.  Before this, learning was sequestered for the most part in the monasteries and consisted to a great extent in the appropriation of “traditional” bodies of knowledge.  The re-discovery of the “radical” Aristotle went hand-in-hand with the creation of new, innovative institutions – the urban universities.  These were cutting edge associations of knowledge seekers who questioned the status quo of the educational systems of the day.  They undertook their work in physically different venues – and this fact should not be underestimated – in order to be able to wring from the new methodologies and approaches the maximum benefit and insight.

These once cutting-edge institutions in medieval Europehave grown into the respectable ivied halls of academia today.  But something to consider:  A student of the humanities (a field in which one tries to see how it all “hangs together”) from the 13th century, were he (and it was a “he”) transplanted to an average classroom at one of our best institutions in the year 2004, would hardly notice a difference.  But let him walk outside!  Let him engage in commerce, technology, communication, modern transportation, etc.!  It would be a wholly alien world. 

Shouldn’t our methods of research and the delivery of education be transformed with our contextual capabilities?  I think it is beginning to happen.  Distance learning and for-profit education are the merest beginnings of this transformation.  We already know that the disciplines are more powerful (ultimately) in the certification and dissemination of knowledge, than the universities and colleges in which members of the disciplines conduct their business.  It is possible, if you use your imagination, to see a future in which the ties between disciplines and departments (the toe-hold in educational institutions) begin to weaken.  Instead, picture the top minds – the ones the best brick-and-mortar institutions work so hard to attract – while continuing to professionally reside in physical colleges and universities, can be connected via a “chaordic” network of fellow researchers and explorers that goes far beyond their departments, perhaps even beyond the disciplines themselves, to the richest variety of fellow thinkers that the world has to offer – no matter the physical location of those scholars.  Imagine the creative synergy that can be generated, once that chaordic network has matured and once the technological bandwidth to support it has become a reality, when all the best can collaboratively work without regard to borders—national, disciplinary, institutional.

Now, imagine the media for the transmission of knowledge to the next generations – i.e., education.  A bright graduate student can study with even more specificity, even more specialization than is currently possibly, as she will have full access to this connected network (really, networks of networks, forming ad hoc nodes as the inspiration dictates).  And yet, the hyper-specialization that would then be possible (and we repeat – this specialization is very powerful and valuable) would nevertheless be “tempered,” if you will, by the fact that the possibility of hyper-specialization is made possible only in the trans-disciplinary, integral, holistic, chaordic system in which it occurs.  I am suggesting that if you want the most productive, the most far-reaching, the most advanced education possible, it will have to be distance learning that will deliver it.

But, it won’t be distance learning as we know it now, featuring a few adjunct professors consigned to the furthest outposts of the brick-and-mortar institutions, trying to provide yet another revenue stream for the ever-increasing competition among institutions.  Now, distance education is something “undignified,” something marginal and clandestine and suspect…something like a so-called “university” in 13th century Paris! 

I can imagine, in the long run, there being only one real university—as its name suggests, maybe there can only be one real university.  That university will be global.  It will be a chaordic system of ad hoc nodes of interest and investigation, networks of disciplines and transdisciplines, networks of actual and virtual institutions.  And this university will have as its mission a “turning towards the whole,” as its name implies.  But it will not be run by any single school of thought, any single interest (commercial or political).  It will not be imperial or hegemonic.  It will not produce an orthodoxy (not intentionally or consciously, anyway).  It will be the most wide-open and diverse quasi-institution, and yet – not so paradoxically, once you think about it – it will drive a strengthening of academic standards.  It will be idea-competitive, not brick-and-mortar institutionally competitive.  The very best brick-and-mortar institutions will not fade away, however.  Far from it!  They will, in this vision of the future, have the ability to draw from the resources of this same global system.  Physical labs have to be somewhere, after all, and face-to-face collaboration is always good and salutary.  But no one university would be able to corral all the top minds, not even in a very specialized narrow discipline.  The world is too big for that!  Instead, each important university – to remain important – will have to contribute to the global network(s) and to avail itself of the networks’ resources.

The level of access to education – a key driver of freedom and autonomy for any society – will be accessible to all, and the current “caste system” fueled by widely disparate levels of quality in education will eventually whither.  Top quality education will also be much more affordable.

Call me a dreamer, but this “little” initiative to form relatively small societies of trans-disciplinary thinkers on campuses around the world, I believe, is a harbinger of vastly transformative things to come.

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