Knowledge Lost

20131216_132114Frank H. T. Rhodes, long-time president of Cornell University, in his book The Creation of the Future, said the following:

“If I were allowed only one word to describe the distinctive method by which the university pursues its multiple tasks of learning, discovery, and service, it would be the word ‘community.’… Without community, personal discovery is limited, not because the individual inquirer is any less creative or original than the group, but because his or her conclusions remain unchallenged and untested; private knowledge is knowledge lost.”

The current trend in academia, retreating from the reductionism of the past and embracing a more holistic and trans-disciplinary approach, is appropriately lauded for its creative potential.  Stated simply, examining a complex problem from the perspective of multiple disciplinary traditions is more likely to lead to a comprehensive solution than any narrow view alone.  Rhodes reminds us of another benefit:  challenging our conclusions.  It is not enough to solve technical and theoretical scientific problems.  Such solutions must be challenged through open discourse with experts from sometimes seemingly unrelated fields that span the humanities and social and natural sciences.  This is the ultimate power of a campus, to nurture a community of researchers and scholars, teachers and learners, discoverers and idea entrepreneurs who engage critical discourse.

As Rhodes expounds in his book, one of the great challenges to contemporary universities is to restore community after a century of building silos around increasingly isolated fields of inquiry.  This is where ESF has an ace up the sleeve.  Our shared passion for, and commitment to, environmental issues and sustainability create community and a shared vision of a better world.  The grand challenges in these areas, by nature of their complexity and far-reaching implications, invite such discourse in an effort to see them in the broad context of Nature and human civilization.   ESF is at the forefront, ready to educate leaders, inspire society to shoulder the responsibilities of good stewardship, and make the discoveries required to realize this vision — tested and refined through community discourse, and seen in the full context of human affairs and the natural world.

The more I learn about the diverse interests, expertise, and passions in our community, the more optimistic I become for the future of ESF and the world.  While many universities are occupied by the enormous task of restoring community where it has been lost, we can engage ours to create the knowledge, options, and insights required for a sustainable planet.

By the way, I will be hosting a series of informal events I call “Moonlighting” in Moon Library on the ESF campus that will celebrate our intellectually diverse community and encourage civil, respectful discussions across disciplinary boundaries.  The first Moolighting will be on April 2nd.  More details are at:


About qdwheeler

Quentin Wheeler is the 4th president of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry
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