Just what is the big picture perspective on knowledge, what is its value, and how is this perspective restored for students?

Having recently returned from an academic conference where the average age of the participants was about 60 years, I began to realize with a growing sense of alarm and perhaps despair that interest in the subject matter of the conference was waning. The subject matter was nothing less than “ultimate reality and meaning“. The society dedicated to the study of such over-arching themes has, for about three decades, been holding biennial meetings and publishing a journal dedicated to exploring all questions associated with “ultimacy “ (i.e., foundational principles and concepts, by which all else may be understood).

More to the point, my own department, which prides itself on its interdisciplinary outlook and has a much younger contingent of academics filling its ranks, seems to show little interest in the subject of this discussion: the “big picture“ view of knowledge – what I call the integrative horizon of understanding which should be the hallmark of an educated person. By “integrative horizon“, I mean a flexible and open-ended unifying framework, which serves to counterbalance the fragmenting tendencies of contemporary knowledge. It is a horizon in danger of being lost, and the consequences of this loss are serious, not only for the academic world, but also for an important ideal of civilization in general: the ideal of what it means to be an educated person.

Just what is the big picture perspective on knowledge, what is its value, and how may that ideal be maintained in our current climate of extreme intellectual specialization? With respect to the first of these three questions, the big picture is not some sectarian ideology that purports to have a magic key to answering all questions on the basis of a few pregnant metaphors. Nor is it an interdisciplinary approach to a specific group of problems. Nor is it even a meditation on a set of great books or classic texts. Valuable as the last two of these are, the big picture approach goes beyond such strategies of gaining knowledge by striving to do the following:

  1. acquiring a familiarity with the foundational principles of understanding in the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences;
  2. exploring how these principles may be inter-connected;
  3. on the foregoing basis, developing a vision of the whole with a view to overcoming breakdowns in discourse – breakdowns that bring to the world both misunderstanding and intolerance.

While points (1) and (2) may be ambitious, the third point is radical and embodies what should be the ideal of what it means to be truly educated. That is, individuals may be considered truly educated if they can talk intelligently on all topics of significance to our world and, in so doing, deal constructively with the disputes that are forever threatening to derail the train of human discourse.

Having successfully taught a course organized along these lines, I know that the big picture approach to knowledge is both pedagogically possible as well as worthy of being a subject of scholarly research. But before I go more deeply into the intrinsic value of such an enterprise, allow me to illustrate how I encouraged students to boldly explore paths that  most senior academics would be loath to tread.

First, with respect to basic course organization, the instructor’s task is to assemble a set of readings that gives students what I would call the lay of the intellectual landscape. This might be done by exposing them to the key ideas underlying the major disciplines that make up the organizational structure of most universities. The exposure would, of necessity, be at an introductory level and might follow the somewhat traditional arrangement of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, political-economy, history, literature, philosophy, and religious studies. The goal is to find representative texts in each (or most) of these areas – texts that highlight, in a manner accessible to undergraduates, the major intellectual questions animating the various disciplines. (For example, I had my students approach mathematics from the perspective of Gödel’s proof. Physics was explored by examining Einstein’s relativity, Planck’s quantum, etc., – all through texts designed to give students a basic familiarity with some of the major concepts that underlie these fundamental areas of knowledge.) Lest the would-be instructor become intimidated by the task of assembling this kind of reading package, consultation with colleagues possessing the appropriate expertise is an obvious solution. Team-teaching is not out of order, although one must always avoid the danger of losing the integrative impetus that should always animate such a course.

With the course readings assembled, the second task looms, which centers on how the big picture may be achieved. The big picture does not automatically assemble itself from a collection of master concepts distilled from their respective disciplines. Instead, it must grow out of a sensitivity to connections, affinities, similarities, etc., between these concepts – something that requires a strongly intuitive stance on the part of teacher and student. Examples of this kind of intellectual work are not in short supply. (Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics – An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism is an obvious case in point. Less well known, but of comparable scope, is John Polkinghorne’s Quantum Physics and Theology — An Unexpected Kinship.) The main obstacle to undertaking this kind of exploration is a fear on the part of all learners that they are not good at certain things. Hence, they seek to avoid those challenging areas of inquiry. However, while such fear is understandable and perhaps even encouraged in many academic contexts, it is hardly conducive to the search for truth.

While this is not the appropriate forum to go into details on integrative methodologies, two approaches to big picture composition may be outlined. One is what might be called “holographic“, where a hologram is an image, which, if fragmented into pieces, has the curious feature of each piece offering a perspective on the whole image. From a disciplinary outlook that translates into how the world appears from the perspective of mathematics, from the perspective of physics, and so on, all the way up to the perspective of spirituality. Those holographic perspectives may then be compared and re-integrated in a systematic manner. A second strategy centers on exploring the symmetrical relationships between what I call the “internal “ and the “external “ dimensions of reality, where internal refers to the realm of consciousness, ideas, and mind, while the external refers to the sphere of matter, energy, or whatever is essentially non-conscious. Each of these two areas can be taken as irreducible, and the world interpreted accordingly. For example, mind may be “reduced” to electro-chemical brain processes, and this neuro-science discipline, consequently, illustrates a reduction of the internal to an irreducible externality (since electro-chemical processes are materialist in their very nature). As can be seen, three other possibilities follow for the purposes of big picture composition: namely, reduction of external realities to internal ones, the interpretation of “externals “ in terms of other and perhaps more basic external realities, and, finally, the interpretation of “internals “ by other internalist phenomena. The symmetrical quality of this strategy emerges when internal and external ways of understanding reality are interpreted as being mirror images of each other.

After text selection and methodology comes the question of pedagogy. Because students come with a variety of skill sets or aptitudes, small learning units of five to 10 individuals could be formed where each unit has at least one representative from a major discipline relevant to a big picture project. While instructors must work with what they have, carefully dividing the class into smaller groups, where each group reflects the broadest range of interests and aptitudes, it is conducive to learning to having each group member instruct their peers in areas where that individual is the strongest in terms of a particular discipline or area of knowledge. In any case, the main purpose of group division is to allow each unit to focus on specific issues that have  what I would call big picture potential. An example of such an issue is “love“ – of no small interest to the typical undergraduate – precisely because it can be approached from a large number of disciplinary perspectives (e.g., biological, psychological, sociological, etc.). After each group puts together and presents to the class their big picture project on whatever issue they have chosen, the entire class is expected to synthesize all of these projects and do a joint presentation to the instructors themselves or to a wider audience both within and (perhaps) without the university. In this way, not only is knowledge integrated, but the class itself comes together in a way that bespeaks possibilities for new levels of working together – new in the sense that all who pursue projects pertaining to the public interest are all, to a significant degree, informed by a sense of the whole, that is, the big picture.

While the foregoing primarily addressed feasibility concerns, opposition to the big picture ideal may also stem from  suspicions aboutits inherent value. In the following section I would like to bring those suspicions onto the table and, hopefully, allay them.

Perhaps at the top of the list of suspicions is the view that such a course would be so superficial that, given the extent of its goals, it would purvey more misinformation than valid knowledge. To this I answer that popular expositions written by acknowledged experts in their respective fields are better than total ignorance. More important, new depth arises when metaphors and methodologies from disparate disciplines are carefully and creatively compared and made the subject of synthesis in the context of what I would call integral-disciplinarity. Masters in this genre (e.g., Ken Wilber) would also be studied so that students could get a sense of how this task might be effectively and elegantly accomplished.

The second suspicion is that which I would call “superfluity”. This is the view that students have enough to do in fulfilling their degree requirements. A generalist form of knowledge is accordingly superfluous to the extent that such programs require students to take the odd science, humanities, or social science course. Such a position reminds me of the tribute paid by academic vice (e.g., political correctness, indifference to students, the hype of a false and empty freedom) to intellectual virtue (e.g., an authentic breadth of knowledge). Not only does this kind of cherry picking from lists of courses fail to provide any kind of integrative outlook, it also shifts the responsibility of educating for breadth onto the shoulders of those who, with respect to their inexperience, would understand it the least.

The third suspicion of the big picture is actually more  a profound discomfort than a doubt. I would call it a fear of facing the fissures in the fabric of knowledge. While much has been made of C.P. Snow “s “two cultures “ highlighting the weakness of humanities scholars with respect to the intellectual demands of the hard sciences, more could be made of the growing gap between spiritual and scientific forms of knowing. Proponents of the latter might reject any claims to valid knowledge arising from areas of inquiry associated with the former. Although what I call spiritual disciplines (e.g., theology, trans-personal psychology, aesthetic ways of understanding the world through art, literature, music, etc.) do employ the rationalist techniques prized by the hard sciences, they also make use of non-rationalist techniques: hermeneutics, intuition, meditation, imagination, etc. The big picture – if it is truly big and not some overview that privileges a master discipline – is precisely one where such potential fissures are squarely faced and mediated by a non-reductive discourse.

The value of the big picture should by now be self-evident when one notes how rigid disciplinary boundaries are as conducive to insularity as are the multitude of ideological and sectarian rivalries that both rock and wreck the discursive milieu within which we are living. If there is to be any kind of healing the ever-more bloody wounds of our world, a big picture perspective must be part of the remedy. To the extent that it allows discussions to be informed by an awareness of the presuppositions, assumptions, and paradigms which underlie our fundamental commitments to life, to that extent can we move beyond the sterile and repetitive intransigence which comes to the surface when differences arise. In short, the big picture perspective gives us hope of reclaiming a renewed faith in human discourse.

How to maintain such an ideal? First comes an appeal to pragmatism. Not only may the ideal facilitate interdisciplinary discourse, it may also allow scholars ensconced in one area to meet some of the challenges of their research agendas by giving them a richer arsenal of concepts and methods on which to draw than would otherwise be available to them.

Second is my appeal to principle – the principle of truth seeking as an endless process of integrating different perspectives, a process that completes and ennobles all who pursue it. What I am calling the big picture or integral-disciplinarity embodies that principle and, with adequate supporting structures, would enhance its presence in the university community. Setting up at least one such big picture course in each academy and requiring that all students take it would go a long way to making the pursuit of truth not some empty cliché but a powerful force in their lives, as well as in the life of our world civilization. With the help of the big picture ideal, horizons lost in the knowledge explosion may once more be found in the ever-fertile fields of knowledge integration.

Ronald Glasberg is an associate professor in the Department of Communication & Culture at the University of Calgary.