Beauty, the Scientific Mind,
and September 11

When it happened, more than 4000 miles away, I was sitting behind my desk. The telephone rang. Had I seen it? No. I switched on the TV minutes before the second plane crashed into the second tower. Then I saw it. Or did I? What was it that I saw? What questions ought to be asked? Was this really different from anything else we had experienced before? Were we witnessing an event that, as so many would later claim, changed the world forever? What difference did it make that we could see it live on TV? What difference did it make that the images were repeated and repeated again, amplified, and enhanced for impact, as the days progressed? Is outrage a function of something being televised? If so, what does that mean for how the media are being controlled and how existing power structures condition what and how we learn? Were we finally hurt because we were being hurt?

For a long time we have been familiar with all the various ingredients in different combinations: people killing themselves in a spectacular way to serve some cause, trying to attract attention to it; people taking the lives of others, deliberately or as the collateral result of an act in pursuit of a goal; people using their most human of all capabilities, the ability to understand and creatively visualize processes, to fashion the means that will ultimately kill people, doing so dispassionately and with great attention to detail and effectiveness; people applying those means for purposes and in circumstances that, according to some are justified, according to others are beyond justification or outright ill-conceived or misconstrued. What happened on September 11, 2001, was not an act of uncontrolled emotion. It was an act of deliberate and meticulous planning - like there have been many other such acts in human history - made possible by separating our cognitive abilities from our faculties to reflect, cognitively and emotionally, on what we knowingly do or know how to do. So, here is perhaps a clue.

There are many things, small and big, with minor or major potential consequences, in which we use our well developed intellectual skills to sequentially order, understand and transform the world, without at the same time being able - or is it wanting? - to see that that same world is a complex array of interacting processes, the totality of which is more than the sum of its parts, thus giving rise to emerging phenomena and unpredictable long-term consequences of actions that were intended to solve problems in the short run. We reserve the appreciation of beauty for special occasions and places, like when we admire a work of art, listen to serene music, or stand in awe of magnificent scenery, but we have difficulty experiencing the beauty of ordinary things. We have grown used to believing that the world and we are separate entities and thus that the world can be manipulated by us. Our sense of belonging, traditionally often inspired by religious beliefs, is in urgent need of being rediscovered within the context of worldviews that transcend the outmoded schism between science and religion. We must overcome our feelings of discomfort at having to entertain multiple perspectives on reality. We must equally overcome our complacency of not asking ourselves questions about what is right and what is wrong in our day-to-day behavior, effectively banning ethical considerations to the realm of the big issues only or ignoring such considerations altogether.

The challenges the world is facing are harrowing and captivating. They are intimately linked with our capacity to learn and our ability to give new meanings to learning. We build on centuries of development of learning behavior, often based on too narrow an emphasis on mere utilitarian goals. That emphasis has allowed us to become cleverer and cleverer at the things we do, without, at the same time, leading us to look at and pass judgment over what we are doing. In addition to becoming knowledgeable, we must develop our meta-cognitive abilities. In addition to developing our skillfulness and capacity to create, we must become masters at meta-creativity, able to creatively pass judgment over and intervene in the results of what we do while we are being creative. In addition to learning, we must develop our aptitude at asking ourselves questions about our learning; we must elevate our learning behavior to beyond its current level and continually expand our capacity at meta-learning.

Observing the current political debate, the world seems to be at risk of returning, at the global level, to the kind of conflict humanity experienced at an earlier phase of its history, but then at the level of countries and regions, namely the violent clash between cultures, often expressed with reference to religious convictions. While focusing on those religious convictions, we seem to have replaced our spiritual resources by an obsession with judging others - rather than ourselves - by the standards we invent. Having reached the unprecedented level at which we are currently able to intervene in our world, we should be able to learn the lessons of the past and draw from them the inspiration and resourcefulness to overcome our current dilemmas. To learn such lessons, different mindsets are required than the ones that are being promoted by most of the media and to which we get exposed through much of the formal educational practice.

I see the lifelong disposition to engage in dialogue with our ever-changing environment as the essential basis of what it means to be learning. As humans we are able to make the choice between good and bad; between destroying things and creating them; between caring for beauty and ignoring to appreciate what is beautiful. For learning to qualify as "human learning," it must clearly express the choice we wish to make. That implies a commitment to developing learning for the purpose of constructive interaction with change.

It is a great common good that we live in a world that still has an incredible richness of cultures, with roots in history that extend over thousands of years. The preservation of that diversity and the development of dialogue among those cultures are at the core of what it means to live together in harmony.

There is much to lose. The signs we see are those of cultures that experience other cultures as potentially hostile. There is a risk that a culture that experiences being under attack takes up the challenge and starts attacking the other culture in order to destroy it. In addition to the tragic loss of lives and material goods, such a course of action can only lead to loss of diversity, thereby reducing our most essential resource of growth. Should this happen, then we will have put ourselves back at least a thousand years in the history of humankind with potential consequences that may eliminate the concept of future.

More than ever is there a need to learn to learn together.

Societies, organizations and individual people do various things to promote and facilitate learning. Traditionally, much of the attention has gone to the practice of schooling as the most important way to influence the development of human learning. I believe that such a narrow focus is wrong and that some of the problems we are currently facing can be related to the narrowness of focus on, and perspective inherent in, traditional school-based learning. It has led to over-emphasizing the development of competencies and acquisition of relatively isolated pieces of knowledge to the detriment of the development of critical thinking; creativity; the exploration of connections; challenging the boundaries of existing conceptions; the ability to reflect; the appreciation of complexity; and seeing things in the light of such integrative concepts as beauty and harmony.

Thus my answer to the question about what we don't know about learning, or at least what we don't know sufficiently well about it, has in the first place to do with the above concerns. Acts such as the ones committed on September 11, 2001, as well as some of the responses to those same acts, reveal the dominant absolutist belief that the world can be interpreted in only one way, leading to, as Basarab Nicolescu observes in this collaborative reflection, forced choices between predetermined binary categories such as Good and Evil. If there is only one way in which the world can be interpreted, if there is only one way in which it ought to develop, how, then, can we ever experience it as beautiful? Doesn't the very concept of beauty presuppose that there is choice, immense choice? Doesn't it recognize that we live in a world of haphazard incidents and accidents and of choices made while we interact with that haphazard reality and, incidentally, carve out our different niches in it, becoming part of and reshaping it collectively and collaboratively? Isn't the search for the only answer, the assertion of a doctrine, a sign that one is totally unprepared for a world in which things are essentially uncertain and unpredictable? Isn't such an attitude the negation of the possibility that there is beauty? If so, would not much be gained if, while we develop as human beings, the possibility that we encounter beauty would once again be taken as a serious dimension of our motivational make-up.

I owe it perhaps to my background as a physicist that I find much of that motivation embodied in the scientific pursuit. The way I interpret that pursuit is one in which art and science have much to do with each other in terms of what drives people to be both scientifically and artistically engaged. The development of a scientific mindset is not disconnected from what makes us appreciate the world as beautiful and what motivates for instance artists to create works that represent beauty. Gavriel Salomon, in his contribution to this collaborative reflection, notes that we live in a world that has made economic growth a prime criterion for judging progress and which sees knowledge, however poorly defined conceptually, as a prime requisite for economic development, thus turning knowledge into a commodity that can be accumulated and "used in merciless competitions for survival and domination." He thus raises the question if in such a world, "in which information, skill and knowledge reign supreme," there still is a role for values and if there still is a need for value education?" I agree with Salomon that the answer to both questions is a "clear and loud YES." I furthermore suggest in this connection that ethics and aesthetics should not be treated as separate domains. Consequently, I think that, for example, a notion like "reverence for life" is a relevant one but that much confusion results from narrow definitions of life, not connoted by meanings that relate to the beauty of life and of nature in general.

Value education, as I see it, is not the inculcation of fixed rules of behavior in people subjected to some sort of instructional procedure. In contrast, it means helping people to discover and appropriate concepts - or rather perhaps essential motivations shared among the members of our species (above I mentioned beauty as an example) - that can serve to inspire "personally sovereign" (see Federico Mayor in this collaborative reflection) decisions to do what is best done at any particular moment. We have little experience if any that allows us to make claims as to how this process can best be nurtured. I posit that it depends on the interplay of the intellectual and emotional challenges and opportunities we get exposed to in multiple contexts, such as the school, the family, the workplace and the media, to name but a few, and that much harm has resulted from how societal preoccupation with these different environments has always treated them as separate, as if they had nothing to do with each other. To appreciate how they hang together, one has but to think about such questions as, "What kinds of state of mind are necessary for humans to function adequately in the circumstances of our time?" and "What is necessary to develop such states of mind?" I use the concept "mind" here in the sense of "embodied mind," i.e. recognizing that the whole body is involved in the process of knowing and creating meaning.

One such a state of mind, I propose by way of example - and no doubt motivated by my own personal bias - is the scientific mind. Leon Lederman refers to this state of mind when he says in this collaborative reflection: We are inundated by a tide of unsustainable consumerism. The wonders of nature revealed pass us by. Thus we lose the value of the heritage of older experiences, we lose the exposure to the spiritual beauty of nature, but we also lose the personal empowerment that comes from scientific thinking.

The scientific mind embodies such things as the spirit of inquiry; the spirit of collaboration; the quest for beauty (harmony, parsimony, wholeness); the desire to understand and do so profoundly; the aspiration to create; the urge to be critical; the will to transcend existing boundaries; the spirit of building on prior knowledge; the search for unity; and the spirit of construction. When truly developed, in an integral manner, having such a mindset would cause dissonance for those who contemplate committing acts like those of September 11, 2001, and for those who contemplate reacting to those same acts in some of the less constructive ways we have witnessed.

No one single environment is most suited for the development of the scientific mind. When we are born we all come equipped with most of what the scientific mind entails. A healthy, open-minded, encouraging and stimulating family environment is thus one factor of importance to keep what one already has and to develop it further. The school could also be one of the places where the scientific mind develops and matures, but this requires a different conception of the purposes of learning and teaching in that environment. As long as the school retains its strong emphasis on mastery of knowledge and skills, rather than on the ability to problematize one's environment, to raise questions, and interact with problems in a constructive and intelligent manner, it will often kill rather than nurture the scientific mind. Many other factors, present in a variety of contexts, will further contribute to developing the scientific mind - or at least ensure that what is accomplished in one setting does not get undone by exposure to what happens elsewhere, such as when, for instance, the "ignorance and…the noise and anti-thinking that fills the bandwidths" (Lederman in this collaborative reflection) gets in the way of the development of clear thinking and sound feeling.

My overall and final recommendation is therefore that learning be once again seen as something that is not reserved for special occasions and restricted to special places, but as something that it is pervasive. There is thus a great and urgent need for integrating different learning contexts and exploring the connections between them, so that different factors that promote and facilitate human learning can work in synergy. Societies are diverse in terms of the conditions, resources, opportunities and problems they deal with. It is therefore to be expected that responses to this need for integration will vary across societies. One thing is sure, though, human learning can no longer be seen as the responsibility of a single sector. It is everyone's responsibility and concern. It must therefore be dealt with, at the societal level, as a multisectoral and transsectoral issue.

President, Learning Development Institute
Former UNESCO Director for "Learning Without Frontiers"

January 13, 2002

Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires n° 16 - Février 2002

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