Today’s higher education shows a profound disconnect between the classic, established system and an educational system capable of actually dealing with the world’s problems.
No doubt we live in challenging times, characterized by discouraging ecological indexes like global warming, rising sea levels, loss of biomass, and not least, social disorders like extreme poverty and economic inequality. All these problems are mutually dependent; they are all part of a systemic scenario. Excessive energy consumption induces pollution, which induces climate change, diseases, and poverty, triggering migration, and more. The obvious conclusion is that only persons capable of understanding and operating in a multidisciplinary, systemic way should be the main actors in tackling these problems.
However, the formation of this kind of person is what is lacking at present in our traditional educational systems.
Today’s world leaders - politicians, bank directors, CEOs of multinationals, and others - come either from our universities or, occasionally, are self-made businessmen. Simplifying the scenario into a black-and-white picture, we can say that the universities train technological or humanist specialists in one specific discipline at a time, which is insufficient to deal with the above-mentioned systemic problems. Furthermore, the demands of a strictly academic curriculum generally entail the risk of keeping our graduate students, the world leaders of tomorrow, away from the values of ethics, art, music, poetry and personal introspection. On the other hand, highly specialized engineers or architects or MDs are necessary today. What to do, then?
In Academia and the world at large, there is a diffuse sense that our educational system needs a new direction. This widely-shared feeling has spawned a new generation of webinars and conferences, often featuring keywords like consciousness, mindfulness, or meditation. These are refined concepts in and of themselves, but many of these webinars/conferences today appear to be a paradoxical rehash of the old New-Age movement. We must be careful: what is needed, instead, is a severe school, based on sound science and culture, so that more people can become involved in transformative learning with a systemic and holistic basis.
The solution cannot be to try to change the entire higher educational system. Nor does it lie in squeezing additional hours (on ecology, philosophy, art, etc.) into the already packed academic curriculum of, let us say, science students; or adding physics and mathematics to the heavy syllabus of students of the humanities.
What to do, then?
A possible partial but essential solution can be a complementary, intensive summer school based on the notions of multidisciplinarity, on a systemic outlook, which instead of simply providing “information” about the state of the world, can bring about “transformative learning”- based on a personal experience that will expand students’ horizons and consciousness—and therefore their actions.
Personally, for over 30 years, I have organized a week-long event to try these possibilities and improve them. The result is a successful example for those who want to experiment with a different approach to knowledge and all the operative challenges we face. The event is called the Cortona Week, founded in 1985 in Zurich and supported for many years by the ETHZ (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich). We managed to hold a yearly retreat since 2017, also thanks to a non-profit APS Association, the Cortona-Friends.
In this yearly meeting, the students (in a broad sense, everybody is a student) “mingle” with charismatic science teachers, poets, musicians, spiritual leaders, professional businessmen. They all - about 100-120 of them - live in the same Park Hotel and have their meals and coffee breaks in the same shared room. It is important to remember that this is a retreat, a school, so part-time attendance (a day or two) is not allowed, not even for teachers. You stay the whole week to engage in a continuous exchange of ideas in free-wheeling dialogue-also during meals and coffee breaks. The often-surprising cross-cultural friendships born in this framework location give rise to enrichments and experiences that are nowhere else be frequently found. There are two characteristic teaching systems during the week: in the morning oral presentations (occasionally as round-table discussions) followed by philosophical and critical break out group discussions; and, most importantly, in the afternoon experiential workshops in which participants, divided into small groups, actively engage for up to three hours daily in “other aspects of life” such as painting, sculpture, theatre, music, meditation - again with carefully selected professional teachers. The point is to show that interdisciplinarity is something to talk about and experience with your body and brain. To be noted: multidisciplinarity does not signify learning all possible disciplines but appreciating and understanding the value of other people’s work, habits, traditions, religions.
Among the many teachers who have taken part throughout all these 35 years, we may randomly mention David Bohm, brother David Steindl-Rast, Francisco Varela, Stuart Kauffman, Albert Hofmann, Fritjof Capra, Anton Zeilinger, Roshi Joan Halifax, Richard Ernst, Lyn Margulis, Alexander Lowen, Federico Faggin, Michel Bitbol, Ernesto Burgio, Ben Hurlbut, Cliff Saron, Marko Pogacnik, Irwin and Alexander Lazlo, Chungliang Al Huang and several others.
Each of the Cortona weeks has been a profound journey, and there is plenty of (private) documentation describing the change in life outlooks, actions and ethics that it has brought about. It is remarkable what can be achieved in one intensive week of this kind of work. Those who have experience in personal training retreats are aware of this, as they understand the notion of “transformative learning “; others may have difficulty grasping it. Despite its success and many achievements, the Cortona week has remained restricted to the ETHZ and 100-120 persons per year. Moreover, it has not received widespread publicity, being an almost private undertaking of the ETHZ.
However, imagine that hundreds or thousands of colleges worldwide were to organize their retreat to developed multidisciplined seminars: then a whole new class of men/women would be ready to become the world leaders of tomorrow. It could lead to significant global change. So, why not try to do it.