Confronting Problems with Integrated Knowledge
Academy for Individual Evolution
“Are We Unraveling?”, an article published on July 10th by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, described “a society where elites are widely loathed, where political parties are polarized and one of them is so hollow that a rank demagogue could seize it, where diversity and distrust have risen together, where wage growth has been disappointing, where families are fragmented and churches and civic organization are in eclipse.” We can add to Douthat’s analysis the recent horrific acts of terrorism in Paris, the murders of unarmed black men and police in the U.S., an increasing poverty gap, narrow specialization throughout the social sciences with almost no integration of knowledge, a mass media with no solutions, military efforts that fail to confront terrorism effectively, a healthcare system that has forgotten ethics in lieu of money, widespread pessimism about the future, and the failure of the leaders within our institutions to lead.
We do not hesitate for a second to call attention to these problems in a newsletter entitled “Our Wonderful World” because we are confident that they can be solved. Douthat draws a parallel between our situation today and what we experienced in the 1960s, with the war in Vietnam, a military draft, urban riots, a drug culture, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jack Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. We do not follow the protesters of the 1960s who entirely negated the possibility that academic knowledge of human behavior can help us solve our problems. Now, half a century later, we have bits and pieces of knowledge, scattered throughout society, that, when integrated, can yield the direction that we desperately need for confronting our problems more effectively. Granting that academicians are doing very little to pull that knowledge together—as illustrated by the 52 Sections, and counting, of the American Sociological Association—that knowledge can nevertheless be integrated so as to yield a pathway for solving our problems.
This is exactly what this column will be about. In 2001, Bernard Phillips published Beyond Sociology’s Tower of Babel, focused on integrating knowledge within the social sciences. It is important to note that the tower of Babel extends far beyond the social sciences or even the academic world, for the isolation that it criticizes exists within every single one of our institutions, some of which we illustrated in the first paragraph. This failure to integrate knowledge is nothing less than deadly as exemplified by the 9/11 attacks when the FBI, CIA, NSA, and State Department failed to confer on their knowledge of a possible terror attack, and thus their failure to develop an inter-agency plan for protecting this country. The interdisciplinary orientation of the Babel book was the basis for organizing a series of nine annual conferences and yielded three edited volumes: Toward a Sociological Imagination (2002), Understanding Terrorism (2007), and Bureaucratic Culture and Escalating World Problems (2009).
The problem of integrating knowledge of human behavior requires more than the focus on society as a whole that those books emphasized. It also requires a focus on the individual. To that end Phillips proceeded to write Manual for Personal Evolution (2013), Personal Evolution through Film (2014) and Unlock Your Infinite Potential (2014). But he came to understand that books must be joined by educational efforts, and his own efforts must be joined by the efforts of others. To that end Phillips joined Andy Plotkin (his doctoral student at Boston University), Neil S. Weiss (with a doctorate in business from Columbia), and Max O, Spitzer (Plotkin’s former student and a student at the University of Wisconsin). Together we completed a manuscript entitled: “Invisible Crisis: Toward an Interdisciplinary Scientific Method.”
This manuscript will be the basis for this column, with both the manuscript and the column functioning as way-stations toward learning how to integrate not only our fractured understanding but also our fractured world. They focus on a path toward integrating and developing us shattered individuals: intellectually (“head”), emotionally (“heart”), and in our problem-solving abilities (“hand”). And it is that very integration that can balance the focus on society that is emphasized inside and outside of the academic world. Without that integration we will experience increasing violence throughout the world pointing toward the end of our species. Readers can write Bernard Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org requesting the 30-page introduction to the manuscript, and we encourage suggestions along with negative and positive comments about this column.
The first ten columns will present the ideas in the ten chapters of the manuscript: (1) vision of individual significance, (2) the scientific method, (3) language, (4) structures, (5) emotions, (6) bureaucratic and democratic values, (7) aspirations-fulfillment gap, (8) addiction, (9) aggression, and (10) the power to solve problems. The next seven columns will center on our institutions: (11) religious, (12) educational, (13) economic, (14) political, (15) family/friendships/community, (16) the mass media,and (17) health. These seventeen topics will then be repeated in the same order, but each new time building on what we’ve learned previously. By so doing we will be following the scientific method, for there is no end to the learning process within that method just as there is no end to education or to the evolution of the individual and society.
As for the next column centering on a vision of individual significance, readers should think about the forces that work to teach us of our own insignificance and the kind of world we are presently heading toward. Equally, readers should think about the forces that are teaching us of our own significance and the kind of world that this points toward. The focus of this column will follow the idea of the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his Man for Himself (1947), namely, that we must learn to love ourselves in order to learn to love others. This is much the same as the idea that has been expressed by some Jewish scholars: that in order to repair the world (“tikkunolam”) we must learn to repair our own hearts (“tikkunhalev”). This focus on the individual builds not only on the Christian emphasis of James that faith without works is dead but also on Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism with their focus on individual change as a basis for solving problems. Personal and world problems are increasing and will succeed in overwhelming us unless we come up with answers in the immediate future. We end this column by quoting the existentialist Albert Camus: In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger—something better, pushing right back.