We Urgently Need an Academic Revolution

By Nicholas Maxwell

The crisis of our times — the one that's behind all the other crises — is that we have scientific knowledge without wisdom. Population growth; the lethal character of modern war and terrorism; immense discrepancies of wealth worldwide; annihilation of indigenous people, cultures and languages; impending depletion of natural resources; destruction of tropical rain forests and other natural habitats; rapid extinction of species; pollution of sea, earth and air; and global warming: all these relatively recent crises have been made possible by modern science and technology.

Successful science produces knowledge and technological know-how, which in turn enormously increases our power to act. It is to be expected that this power will be used beneficially (as it has been used) to cure disease, feed people, and in general enhance the quality of human life. But it is also to be expected, in the absence of wisdom, that such an abrupt, massive increase in power will be used to cause harm, whether unintentionally, as in the case (initially at least) of environmental damage, or intentionally, as in war and terror.

Before the advent of modern science, lack of wisdom did not matter too much; we lacked the means to do too much damage to ourselves and the planet. But now, in possession of unprecedented powers bequeathed to us by science, lack of wisdom has become a menace. The crucial question becomes: How can we learn to become wiser?

The answer is staring us in the face: we need traditions and institutions of learning rationally designed to help us acquire wisdom, which at present we do not have. Academic inquiry as it now exists, devoted primarily to the pursuit of knowledge and technological know-how, is grossly and damagingly irrational when assessed from the standpoint of helping humanity acquire wisdom, for wisdom is much more than knowledge, understanding and technological know-how, but includes the capacity to realize what is of value for oneself and others.

Two elementary, banal rules of rational problem solving are to articulate the problem to be solved, and then to propose and critically assess possible solutions. A kind of academic inquiry rationally devoted to helping humanity solve its problems of living so that that which is of value may be realized (thus enhancing wisdom) would put these rules into practice. Such inquiry occurs, at present, within academia, but only on the fringes, for the primary intellectual activity is to solve problems of knowledge, not problems of living. To pursue knowledge more or less dissociated from the attempt to help humanity resolve its conflicts and problems of living in more just and cooperative ways than at present is not only irrational, it is a recipe for disaster, as we have seen. It is this which has led to our distinctively modern global problems.

We need to bring about a revolution in the academic enterprise so that the basic aim becomes to promote wisdom rather than just acquire knowledge. Social inquiry needs to change, so that it gives intellectual priority to problems of living over problems of knowledge about the social world. The relationship between social inquiry and natural science needs to change, the new kind of social inquiry becoming more fundamental intellectually than natural science. The natural sciences need to change so that three domains of discussion are recognized: namely evidence, theory, and aims, the last involving problematic issues about what is unknown, and values. Education needs to change. The whole relationship between academia and the social world needs to change, so that academia does not just study the social world, but rather is in two-way debate — with itself, ideas, experiences and arguments flowing in both directions. Academia needs to become a kind of people's civil service, doing openly for the public what actual civil services are supposed to do in secret for governments.

Academics today have a profound responsibility before humanity to put their houses in order, intellectually and morally, and create a kind of inquiry rationally devoted to helping humanity learn how to resolve its conflicts and problems of living in more just, cooperative ways than at present.

Nicholas Maxwell has for years argued for revolutionary changes in universities so that they promote wisdom, not merely the acquisition of knowledge. He has published five books on this theme: What's Wrong With Science?, From Knowledge to Wisdom, The Comprehensibility of the Universe, The Human World in the Physical Universe, and Is Science Neurotic? For nearly thirty years he taught philosophy of science at University College London, where he is now Emeritus Reader.