A Buffet for the Mind

The story of my college experience is a little bit long and mored complicated than some, so I’m not going to recount the whole thing here. If you’re interested, you can check out the About the Author page. The important bit is this: before I was a religion major, I was a religion minor. One of the requirements in the department was participation in a weekly colloquium where we would get together with the professors and have an hour long group discussion about a variety of topics relating to religion. It would change up from semester to semester; everything from articles to Bible passages to current events.

I can remember vividly my first evening sitting in the chapel lounge, mostly listening to the discussion. Mostly listening, and not participating much, because of the thought that would not stop running through my head.

Holy shit. These people are so much smarter than I am.

Weeks passed and I got more comfortable, and as I did, I recognized what was really going on: different disciplines teach their students to look at and think about the world in different ways. It’s not a deliberate thing, but it’s there. It is unavoidable. There are mental schema that arise because they’re more intuitively useful in some disciplines than in others. That’s not the whole story, though: there is significant overlap. With my literature background, I had an advantage over someone coming in to the department cold, or from certain other disciplines. There are definite similarities between the way a student of literature looks at a text and the way a religion student looks at a text, but it’s not exactly the same. During the first couple of weeks, that’s what I was feeling: a period of adjustment during which I learned the mental schema necessary to look at a religious text like a student of religious studies. As with most things, practice makes perfect.

That phenomenon, or rather a side effect of it, also led me to understand why most colleges and universities require their students to declare a minor as well as a major. While those weeks (let’s be honest here – years) constituted a period of adjustment wherein I learned new methods of thinking and evaluating the world, the old ways did not disappear. I was still a student of literature, through and through. As a result, I had mental schema available to me that some others in the department did not. And what’s more, most of them were still very useful.

This is by no means limited to an English/Religon double major. Just as I had the mental machinery in place to come across certain ideas others might not, students of other disciplines had their own unique mental machinery, too. A chemistry major and a math major look at the world differently than an English major, and from each other as well. In the discussions that followed my brother’s (unfortunately rare) visits to Colloquium, I learned some differences between the way a mathematician and a religious studies student look at the world. (See Pascal and the Law of the Excluded Middle – this or that, but not both, and certainly not neither – then take a look at Taoism, or Buddhism, or the writings of the early Christian Ascetics).

I hope that you will all forgive my broad strokes treatment of these disciplines, as there are simplifications that must take place in a thousand (or so) word blog entry. Math and religion are by no means incompatible. Neither are chemistry and literature. Or Pascal and early Christian Asceticism. Or “nothing” and “everything.” What I’m getting at is quite the opposite: There is value, and I would argue critical importance, to the juxtaposition of different disciplines. The result of being forced to view the world in multiple, different ways, especially ways that seem completely different and possibly incompatible, is astounding.

There is an excellent book by Elizabeth Eisenstein, called Canto, about the world-changing effects of the invention of the printing press. Some of these we all learned in elementary school: mass-production of the Bible, availability of the printed word, a revolution of literacy, blah blah blah. But there are other, less obvious ones. In the days of manuscript culture (manu – hand, script – written), scholarship was even more specialized than it is today. Whereas today the pursuit of multiple, vastly different disciplines is uncommon and perhaps underappreciated, in the days before multidisciplinary libraries, it was basically impossible. (Again, speaking in generalizations here — there were certainly exceptions, but it was a very different world than the one we live in today). It wasn’t until the mass-production of texts became a reality that these increasingly diverse collections could exist. The creation of vast amounts of new texts happened eventually, but first there was an explosion of conversion of old manuscripts to print. The next thing that happened was that people who had access to a multitude of texts on a multitude of topics (most often the printers themselves) started evaluating these texts in terms of each other.

For the first time in history (ok, ok, one of the first times in western history — the beautiful and brilliant Scatterbrained Seminarian has cautioned me about making too many sweeping generalizations about world history) volumes and volumes of vast, diverse human knowledge were laid out on the table before people. Entire new fields of study were born.

Anyway, the thing that got me thinking about it is the fact that, given computers, the internet, the cloud, and the explosion of mobile technology, the time in which we currently live represents a similar age for an explosion of knowledge, except multiplied by a billion or so. (That’s an actual figure — you can look it up).

There are, of course, still obstacles. In the years following the invention of the printing press, the great deluge of learning and innovation had to contend with poverty and intellectual elitism. Nowadays, we have our own economic and elitist roadblocks: namely the fact that there are still about 5 billion people in the world who aren’t linked. In the grand innovation network that a connected humanity has become, that represents a significant impairment. In the past forty years we went from shared land line phones to me composing this blog on a magic piece of glass sitting in my lap at the bus stop. The connection of the two or so billion humans that comprise the modern Internet happened in the midst of that. Imagine the next forty years with more than seven billion connected humans, each with his or her own unique mental machinery to take the newest big idea, turn it on its head, and catapult it somewhere we never could have dreamed. An innovation machine comprised of a bounty of collected information, communication at the speed of light, and over seven billion human imaginations.

The next important advance in Internet technology is not the newest iPhone, or bigger better faster mobile processors, or even Google Fiber. It’s people.

I have been less than consistent with my postings lately, and I’m sorry for that. As always, thank you for reading. More to follow.