President Crow: American Research Universities Must Lead Our Emergence from the Stone Age

By Michael M. Crow During the past few years many of us may have confronted the disturbing realization that the standard operating procedures of our contemporary culture often fall short of the mark or even produce entirely unintended consequences.  The near-meltdown of global economic markets and our faltering efforts to revive the economy, to consider but one scenario among many, offer stark evidence that we seem to be grappling with the escalating complexities of the present and future stuck resolutely in the mindset of the past.  This is to say nothing about our success in shaping a world that in all likelihood cannot sustain our long-term enhancements in wealth generation and, more generally, quality of life for humanity.  Given the apparent limitations in our knowledge matched with our overwhelming hubris as well as capacity to exercise brute force, and there is only one possible conclusion:  as a species we are still mired in the final decades of the Stone Age.

In the wake of such dysfunction we may register our disappointment with broad sectors of society, but we nevertheless cherish the assumption that at least some of our social institutions provide incontrovertible evidence that we have succeeded in leaving behind the world of our Stone Age brethren.  After all, academia epitomizes our highest aspirations and stands at the ready to advance our best interests and perform any and all functions essential to our collective survival as a species.  What is more, our research universities were specifically designed not only to generate new knowledge but also to seek knowledge with purpose and to link that knowledge with action for the common good.  Weren’t they?  Or do our universities merely perpetuate an inwardly focused academic culture that privileges the pursuit of new knowledge to the exclusion of concern for its purpose and application?  Do we merely value knowledge for its own sake and valorize the proliferation of increasingly specialized knowledge that brings with it diminishing returns on investment as its impact on the world is measured in smaller and smaller ratios?

While on balance it may thus appear that we have left the Stone Age behind, there is still that persistent hubris problem to consider:  we seem to assume we have attained to the pinnacle of accomplishment in the conduct of our academic culture and achieved ideal form in the design of our institutions.  But such is not the case.  While our universities have undeniably been transformational catalysts for societal advancement, their capacity to contribute to the resolution of the challenges that confront us is hampered by an excessive fixation on the legacy of the past.  The academic knowledge enterprise suffers from ossification because we operate according to arbitrary and obsolete design limitations.  Among these design flaws is insufficient differentiation among universities and a social organization underpinning the organization of knowledge so rigid that it sometimes resembles devotion to a cult.

One thousand years of university evolution and four hundred years of scientific focus on the ever smaller and more fundamental secrets of nature have quite nearly eliminated our ability to think at multiple scales or on multiple dimensions.  Our inclination toward the refinement of what we already know has virtually crippled our ability to engage between and among the subjects necessary to find our way to a sustainable coexistence with the natural environment.  While convergence defines the cutting edge of science and technology, an obstinate attachment to our respective disciplinary silos is particularly stultifying when we seek to advance understanding of our impact on the interconnected and interactive system of complex biogeochemical cycles that constitutes the surface environment of our planet.

Over millennia we have progressed beyond some Stone Age technologies and developed advanced tools to make our lives more comfortable, but we seem content to conduct certain Stone Age practices with serene complacency.  We fixate on short-term goals and continue to dig deep holes in the ground to extract the remains of prehistoric plants and animals.  The energy system of our entire civilization is predicated on the combustion of these dark substances.  We secure these resources only to burn them and, when necessary, sanction intervention across the globe to ensure our continued supply.  We conduct research to discover new ways to extract energy from these resources or to create new chemicals to replace them.  Indeed, since the middle of the nineteenth century, our universities have led scientific advance and technological innovation that has put over seventy thousand new synthetic chemicals into our ecosystem.

Emerging from the Stone Age once and for all will require a collective mindset shift and this will only come about if we rethink our core values as well as our academic culture.  If the new knowledge we generate from scientific research and technological innovation is to be used to maintain and improve the quality of life across the planet, we must evolve our knowledge enterprises to correlate with what we now understand to be a central challenge for humanity.  The task for our academic communities is to register the significance of sustainability, and to consider how best to reconceptualize and reconfigure institutions to accommodate and advance the new transdisciplinary teaching and research so critical to our collective well-being.  If our universities are to lead us out of the Stone Age, sustainability must become a core aspirational value as well as a new organizing principle for teaching and research.

Contributor's Biography:

Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University.