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What Schools Could Teach Us

Imagine what life would be like if we were educated using a curriculum that progressively revealed the interconnected nature of all things. If this were the case, I believe that war would cease to exist, industrial pollution would be a thing of the past, and children would conjure up the Golden Rule of their own accord.

More than a decade ago, I had a radical shift in my understanding of the evolved nature of the human brain and mind and, as a consequence, saw what I knew to be a common denominator across the entire body of human knowledge: entropy, one of the laws of energy. This finding made everything I knew click into place. And it made the creation of such a curriculum — one in which the disparate fields of human knowledge are organized within a principled energetic framework — a viable possibility. But its development would be a long and formidable task, and so I set aside the idea of committing myself to making it a reality. Years passed before a confluence of events convinced me that it was my dharma to begin this work. So, in the fall of 2007, I made a commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative to develop a global education program for the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) — a “consilience curriculum.”

Consilience — which literally means “jumping together” — refers here to the linking of facts across disciplines, both to create a common groundwork for explanation and to reveal the underlying order of the universe. This grail has been around since 600 BCE, when Thales of Miletus first dreamed of the unification of the sciences. In 1998, E. O. Wilson popularized the idea when he published Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. In this work, Wilson discussed some of the methods that had been used to link facts across the sciences and suggested how they might be used in the future to link the sciences with the humanities. But what Wilson didn’t note is that the sciences are already in general alignment upon the axis of the laws of energy; so if one were looking for a unified framework for knowledge, this would be the place to start.

Here’s a way to conceptualize this quest: Pretend, for the moment, that we’re walking around a college campus, which, for our purposes, will represent the repository of all human knowledge. Let’s start at the chemistry department. In an introductory chemistry course, students are learning a set of principles that derive from the laws of energy (the province of the physics department). These principles govern how subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules interact, form bonds, and orchestrate the characteristics of all physical matter. A trip to the geology department confirms that these principles are crafting the ever-changing characteristics of the earth upon which we live, from its core to its crust. And a stop in the biology department reveals that the laws of energy are responsible for orchestrating the form and function of all living things. There is a magnificent and exquisitely detailed vision of a principled energetic universe emerging across these fields of inquiry — a glimpse of the divine plan of creation, for those who believe.

But what happens to this principled energetic patterning when we arrive at the humanities, social sciences, and arts? Where is it manifest in our vast collection of knowledge about our languages, philosophy, and history; social, economic, political, and religious behavior; and various forms of creative expression? Nowhere. It’s as if human beings and our cultural artifacts had been left out of the grand scheme of things — not by the universe or by a creator but by us.

Our intelligence system was fashioned by natural selection processes to enable us to thrive in the face of entropy. And the patterned functioning of our mind — our neurocognitive architecture — faithfully reflects this mandate. Our mind’s anti-entropic architecture determines our moods, shapes our thoughts, and drives our behavior. Its calculus underlies our aesthetic sensibilities and religious preferences. Its imprint is on our business mergers, international trade deals, and foreign policy decisions. How can we hope to solve the puzzle of the global problems we currently face if we leave out this most critical piece?

At the present time, our base of knowledge is expanding exponentially and at unprecedented rates, and yet “we are drowning in information and starving for wisdom,” as Wilson has noted. Surely the time has come for us to know ourselves. It’s time for us to go back to school.

Peggy La Cerra, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Evolutionary Neuroscience and co-author of The Origin of Minds: Evolution, Uniqueness and the New Science of the Self (Crown).