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A Little Chaos Is a Good Thing

by Ronald A. Williams, President

On October 25, 2001, our new Scholarship Across the Curriculum program sponsored its inaugural lecture.  As befitting our vision to excel as a nationally recognized, intellectually vibrant institution of higher education, Dr. Alicia Juarrero, professor of Philosophy, delivered the inaugural address.  Undaunted by the constraints of the 90 minutes scheduled for her presentation, Alicia titled her lecture, From Plato and Aristotle . . . through Newton and Kant . . . to the Taliban and Complexity Theory . . .(in under one hour).  And, by George, she did it.

Those who attended the lecture and those of you (like me) who have since read her paper stand in awe and full appreciation of the role that powerful thought plays in realizing the benefits of a 21st century liberal education.  Before justifying this claim, a few words are necessary to do justice to the position Alicia takes in her paper.

At the risk of simplifying a one-hour lecture, let me attempt a summary.  Alicia began by contrasting the views of Plato and Aristotle.  Whereas both philosophers agreed that "the temporal and contextual idiosyncrasies that individuate organisms are irrelevant to scientific reasoning," they disagreed in applying the same criteria to questions of morality and ethics.  Whereas Plato believed that there could be an Absolute Form of the Good, just as there are absolute laws in science, Aristotle believed in the reality of change—that the only form of reasoning suitable for human matters is phronesis, practical wisdom.  Practical wisdom is contextually embedded reasoning that takes particular events into consideration when drawing conclusions.  For Aristotle, moral education required teaching by example, not by memorizing formulas.

Moving from Plato and Aristotle through contrasts among Newton, Kant, and Darwin and on to complexity theory, Alicia argued that people adapt and evolve by applying practical wisdom, not immutable rules.  Although stability has its virtues, resilience and adaptability help us absorb and adapt to change.  Evolution favors resilience, not stability.  Complexity theory teaches that complex systems (from human societies to the nature of individual hurricanes) interact with their surroundings in such a way that they evolve truly novel and creative properties.

Thus, we must understand that in the 21st century, and particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, the promise of absolute answers which cults and extremist groups offer, can be very tempting.  We should, however, resist this temptation. Alicia writes: "The alternative to the false prophet of absolute certainty is neither a retreat into the comfort and security of fundamentalist religion—whether of the Muslim, Christian, or Jewish variety—or total ignorance and impotence." Instead, we should consider the nature of complexity and its ethical lessons.

Among the "ethical lessons from complexity theory" she offered was this:

We know that complex systems are more likely to be resistant and survive if their components are heterogeneous and diverse than if they are homogeneous.  I think we’ve already assimilated the lesson of social diversity; perhaps the personal counterpart of that lesson is that a wide variety of skills—a liberal arts education—is more likely to serve you better than very narrow specialization.

In the above lesson, I find one more reason to champion the value and benefits of a liberal education at Prince George’s Community College.  The aims of a liberal education include: the development of intellectual and ethical judgment; the expansion of cultural, social, and scientific horizons; the cultivation of democratic and global knowledge and engagement; and preparation for a dynamic and rapidly evolving economy and society.  Liberal education is the approach to higher education that serves us best in an increasingly complex world.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Statement on Liberal Learning concludes as follows:

The ability to think, to learn, and to express oneself both rigorously and creatively, the capacity to understand ideas and issues in context, the commitment to live in society, and the yearning for truth are fundamental features of our humanity.  In centering education upon these qualities, liberal learning is society’s best investment in our shared future.

Liberal education is the cornerstone supporting the vision and mission of Prince George’s Community College.  By understanding the complex systems around us and the necessity for change, we will work to accomplish what Alicia suggests in her conclusion.  We must "embrace and nurture the often unclear, tentative, and fallible practical wisdom with which we can make reasoned, reflective judgments about ourselves and the messy, complex world in which we live—and to act from that wisdom.  With any luck we might be more often right than wrong."

I thank Alicia for her practical wisdom and urge faculty members to actively engage with the societal, ethical, and practical implications of liberal learning.  Let us pledge to help all of our students embrace liberal education as a source for the whole of life, and as the form of knowledge we most need for this new era of shared futures.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 2

Fall 2001