Moving Toward Complex Thinking and Transdisciplinary Approaches in Education (pt 1) #change11

I re-read a July 4, 2011, column by William Irwin Thompson, called “Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?” and was reminded, as I so often am in reading Thompson, how there are very few functional metaphors to explain complex problems. Thompson, however, has a good one.

We live in a culture that pits left against right, good against evil, believer against non-believer, capitalist against socialist, Coke against Pepsi, and so on, in a winner-take-all smackdown. Reality is, of course, not so simple. Thompson writes:

Culture is a complex dynamical system and is not a political or religious ideology, so what is required in this planetary transformation is an understanding of planetary dynamics in the interlocking exchanges of atmosphere, ocean, and continent. Science left to itself can become authoritarian and tyrannical; religion left to itself can become genocidal, and art left to itself can become narcissistic. What is needed is the triple description of these three different and independent cognitive domains, a triple circularity that is presented to us in the dynamics of atmosphere, ocean, and continent.

Bingo. Culture is not a war. There is no us against them. The planet recognizes such battles as sideshows. To say religion is pitted against science is like saying the Colorado River is pitted against the Grand Canyon. Can you declare a winner?

I think it’s also helpful to start thinking in three’s instead of the usual Manichean dualism standard in most Western ideology. When at least three forces are at play, head-to-head battle is less impossible. Instead, a system emerges, a cycle forms. (In a relatively small example, compare England’s last election to America’s upcoming race. With three in the running, new combinations and positions emerge; more people are represented; nuance is possible, though I’m not sure the results were much better.)

Thompson uses the atmosphere, oceans, and the continents as a kind of metaphorical map for what a new complex mode of thought might look like. (He’s also being literal with his choice of images, since he argues that actual ecological preservation will be critical to our survival, and that we must learn to honor the planet’s “wish” to remain in symbiotic stasis.) Because oceans wear on continents, continents drift into oceans, and the atmosphere interacts with them both, it is impossible to isolate, praise, and/or blame one phenomena when seeking to analyze and fix some global problem. Certainly, the same is true of ecosystems, weather systems, markets, and organisms.

But, less literally, Thompson is referring to the impossibility of reducing the complexities of reality down to simple, competing ideologies, and then choosing a side and seeking to extinguish your foe. That would be like trying to sop up the ocean with the beach. In a complex dynamical system, the only “evil” is failure to perceive the nature of complexity, and even then, doing so it isn’t evil. The worldview that lacks a complex understanding of things is just one more component in the dynamic, multi-faceted system. It isn’t wrong, per say, just partial. It should be noted, however, that many problems, some of which are often tagged as evil, are the result of ideological thinkers who cling to narrow depictions of reality which favor atmosphere over ocean, so to speak.

If you’re interested in solving Earth’s greatest problems, complex thinking is a necessity. If you’d like to try your hand at something less daunting, like a creating a literary revolution, you’ll need to tap into complexity as well, consciously or unconsciously. Hear’s a brief example:

Who created the Beat Generation?

A simple answer might be “Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs.” This answer, however, ignores the formalist poetic establishment the Beats were working against, the Post War economics that provided both the means for rebellious written expression (expanded highways, leisure time, type writers and tape recorders) and the material to rebel against (the bomb, conformity, The Cold War), as well as the long trail of literary influences who preceded the Beats (their influences tended toward Romantic, Mystical, and Eastern writers). The Beat movement was not so much an intentional creation as it was an emergent phenomena that must be looked at through many different lenses in order to be explained: literary, historical, economic, psychological, and so on.

Ultimately, I think this way of thinking demands a shift to a transdisciplinary approach to education, one where departments no longer work in isolation from one another. A great voice on this subject is Alfonso Montuori, Professor of Transformative Studies at Californian Institute of Integral Studies. In an interview with Russ Volckmann, he explains the dilemma of bringing transdisciplinary approaches to higher education:

When you look at the organization of both universities and the organization of thinking, there are interesting architectural parallels. When you look at the university, you have these different departments usually housed in different buildings. Disciplines have all these different branches. Knowledge is reduced to finer and finer levels of granularity. That’s a reflection of the way we were traditionally taught to think—by reducing and isolating and getting down to the smallest variable—the logic of either/or until you reach the bottom. The university is the concretization and institutionalization of a certain way of thinking. So for transdisciplinary work, you have to learn how to contextualize and connect. That’s originally what systems theory was attempting to do.

In reality, there are no fine boundaries between science and writing, between physical education and physics, math and music. In the university, they generally erect brick walls around their disciplines.

Leave a comment


  1. Not a metaphor for complexity but a message from Einstein that supports the reality of this splendid article: ‘It is seeing with complexity and more dimensions that enables the development of simple solutions.’

    Alfonso Montuori is absolutely right: It is impossible to ‘see with complexity’ through brick walls.

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