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Against tradition, toward imagination

The tapestry of human knowledge is a wondrous thing. Scientists re-define nature, politicos predict how human beings interact and humanists envision new possibilities for what we can be. Probing the depths of our world, our minds and ourselves, we ask the questions that will help us understand the true nature of reality.

But in a new generation—one filled with theories of string, low-carb diets and religious fundamentalism—the boundaries of knowledge are becoming increasingly blurry. No longer can we compartmentalize our study into neat boxes, squirreling the science folk away from the humanities folk and then further separating the biologists from the physicists, the literature buffs from the political junkies, and so on. Psychologists critique the assumptions of capitalism in exciting ways; poets help to cure the sick; historians create new alliances around traditional concerns of social equity.

We should recognize those a-ha! moments of discovery when brilliant connections are made across disciplines, or when someone tackles a problem from an entirely new angle, but human beings are strange creatures: we resist change.

The American political system is a case in point. Republicans are the party of liberty; Democrats are the party of equality. Republicans champion free markets, social conservatism and God; Democrats advocate social welfare, free expression and reason. Whether these claims are true or internally consistent is irrelevant—we become caught up in the rhetoric surrounding them. The intense adherence to party identity in America—evidenced by the dearth of political cross-dressers—is testament to a citizenry unaccustomed to thinking in imaginative ways, locked as we are into stagnation and a linear vision of what is right.

We are taught to understand everything in one dimension, by the very men and women we call our leaders.

For those who might be wondering, this is not a tirade against the un-educated. I do not believe that the formally educated have a monopoly on imagination. In fact, they may be at a disadvantage, structured into the traditionalism of their particular discipline or profession.

Furthermore, those in the academy are sometimes the worst perpetrators of linear (or leftist) groupthink. It is probable that, isolated away in a corner office or laboratory, one can miss the big picture or be blind to how knowledge outside the field can inform those within it.

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and director of research at the National Endowment for the Arts, calls this phenomenon the “false consensus effect,” where “people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population.”

But I am not one to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The best that Duke has to offer inspires us to re-work the ingrained connections we’ve formed in our brains. Duke in particular is at the forefront of interdisciplinary thought: we’ve got the John Hope Franklin Center, CIEMAS and the Institute for Genomic Sciences and Policy, just to name a few of the latest initiatives. But institutions are one thing; getting into our heads is another.

Take, for example, the traditional campus issues: the lack of conservatives, the lack of minorities, abortion, affirmative action, God, hierarchy. Rarely do we see in the pages of The Chronicle a conversation that moves us beyond one-dimensionality, and the few who challenge us out of orthodoxy are often met with derision, or even contempt.

There are so many theories that could govern our lives: Freudian, Marxist, evolutionary, race, gender, religious, cosmological or “we’re all so insecure we try to fool ourselves into thinking we’re important.” There are merits to all of them, and it is our duty to understand how they expand our understanding. It is our duty to see things in multiple dimensions. It is our duty to make the great connections, so that we will never be duped into imagining that things are, or have ever been, simple.

Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior. His column appears on Mondays.



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