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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Boston Globe

October 3, 1999

AMHERST -- Contemplating an agenda for the future, University of Massachusetts at Amherst Chancellor David K. Scott envisions bringing religion back into higher education. He is not talking about a department here or there devoted to the teachings of a particular faith. He wants to infuse spirituality into every part of academic life.

That is not necessarily what you would expect from a physicist who leads a public institution. But Scott, 60, is deeply concerned about the fragmentation of knowledge into insular disciplines that are often suspicious if not ignorant of each other. If education is about creating a whole person, then values cannot be separated from empirical knowledge, Scott says.

He is not advocating a return to the medieval university rooted in faith. But he does say that higher learning has swung too far in the other direction. Reason as the paramount organizing principle behind education just does not cut it anymore given the kinds of issues today's graduates will face, he says.

Instead of the "information age" often talked about, Scott sees the dawning of an "integrative age" in which steps toward interdisciplinary thought in vogue now give way to "transdisciplinary" thinking. For example, "the relationship between religious, spiritual views and approaches of science" would be explored, he says.

Looking to the future Scott sees "a new Integrative University preparing educated citizens for a new millennium and a new age in which spirituality will be a natural ally rather than an enemy in the education of engaged citizens for an enlightened democracy."

What about the separation of church and state?

"Universities need to examine what is permissible, under the complexities of the law" to address the intellectual and spiritual needs of the community, he says. His sense is that rather than being a legal deterrent to a melding of faith and reason, the Constitution has been used as a "convenient barrier" by academia to avoid taking religion seriously. Studies of spiritual traditions in publicly funded universities have been segregated into their own departments, according to Scott, "so thatevery other discipline is free to ignore religion."

He is calling for "a new unity of scientific, ethical, aesthetic, and religious institutions." And he sees the postmodern trend in academia, which in some cases has degenerated into abject cynicism but can also take credit for revealing the complexity of received knowledge, as giving way to something he calls "transmodernism." This will be characterized by the "emergence of a new intellectual vision" with the potential to unify spiritual and empirical approaches to knowledge.

Though it is popular these days to think in terms of an "explosion" in knowledge as technology opens ever more possibilities, Scott sees an "implosion" of knowledge in which seemingly disparate ideas and disciplines come into a unifying framework. He wants to move away from a "philosophy of knowledge" in which science and religion occupy separate realms and toward a "philosophy of wisdom" in which the two learn from and influence each other on a deep level.

It is not hard to imagine that it will become technically possible to clone human beings within the working lives of today's college students. Scott points to this as one example of why educational institutions must do a better job of preparing citizens to deal with complex issues.

Steps UMass is moving toward to respond to the imperatives Scott sees include rethinking the "general education" requirement students must fulfill to graduate.

Scott wants to structure the curriculum so that students will take classes, including upper-division courses, outside their major disciplines during all stages of their schooling. He is floating the idea of designing an interdisciplinary Center for Integrative Studies to think of ways of getting students to reflect on their majors from varying perspectives.

He is also looking into expanding the practice of requiring a "Capstone Experience" in the senior year in which students are called on to present of synthesis of their educational experience.

According to Marta Calas, an organizer of the recent conference on "Re-Organizing Knowledge," Scott was a key supporter of her efforts. He attended many sessions and addressed participants. Now he is looking forward to another conference planned for the UMass Amherst campus next June. The working title is: "Going Public with Spirituality in Work and Higher Education.

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