Real-World Alchemy

Carnegie Corporation of New York President Vartan Gregorian with students in Providence, RI

Turning Knowledge into Public Policy

It may seem paradoxical that in the current era of global connectivity and instant communication, our society shows signs of being starved for knowledge. I would argue that this is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves. While the modern world is overwhelmed with data and information it is “underwhelmed” with real understanding and clear vision about how to address the challenges that confront us. Television’s talking heads speak to us in a barrage of sound bites and the Internet presents us with billions of lines of text, millions of videos, images, and more “content” than any one human being—or ten, or a thousand, for that matter—could ever attempt to process. And all across the globe, men, women, and children are either plugged into or casting their eyes toward the screens of various electronics that speak, sing, whisper, and shout at us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The constant chatter of the world seems both addictive and unavoidable.

While this explosion of information seems unlikely to slow down—indeed, we are told that the total amount of collected information will double in less than two years—recent estimates indicate that we are unable to use 90 to 95 percent of the information that is currently available. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that not only are we distracted and overwhelmed by the flood of images, news, rumor, gossip, data, information, and knowledge that bombard us every day, we also face dangerous levels of fragmentation of knowledge, dictated by the need for specialization and the need to find some way to catalog and manage all the learning that human beings have accumulated over the millennia. 

Perhaps nowhere is this breakdown in the unity of knowledge more apparent than in our universities, which were largely influenced by the principles of such philosophers as Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), who believed that a university comprised a whole community of scholars and students engaged in a common search for truth. Truth may still be the objective, but the road leading to that goal now has more byways than even Google maps can chart. After all, universities are no different than any other institution—or our own homes, for that matter—where the daunting arrival of information in the form of books and journals has been compounded by an accelerating electronic torrent of information and opinion, some of it true, much of it false, and a great deal of it falling somewhere on the spectrum of “maybe so but then again, maybe not.” 

This situation has resulted, among other outcomes, in a broad decline of support for the time-tested idea of a general education, once considered necessary for an educated citizenry and the strength of our democracy, which has for all practical purposes become little more than a nostalgic memory. Indeed, because the body of requisite knowledge has become so vast, no one can hope to master more than a small segment of it. 

Faced with an impossible undertaking, most universities today have entangled themselves in a smorgasbord of specialties and subspecialties, disciplines and subdisciplines, within which further specialization continues apace. Indeed, the scope and intensity of specialization is such that scholars, scientists, and many others have great difficulty keeping up with the important developments in their own subspecialties, not to mention their field in general. What this means is that the university, which was conceived of as embodying the unity of knowledge, has become an intellectual “multiversity,” drifting in the direction of becoming a “Home Depot” of educational offerings, without blueprints. At the present time, for example, many major research universities offer countless undergraduate courses, an approach to education in which all too often there is no differentiation between consumption and digestion, no differentiation between acquiring information and learning, and often without accompanying reflection or questioning about what it means nowadays to be an educated person. 

As early as the 1930s, José Ortega y Gasset, in his Revolt of the Masses, noted this phenomenon and decried the “barbarism of specialization.” Today we have more scientists, scholars, and professional men and women than ever before, he observed, but fewer cultivated ones. To put the dilemma in twenty-first-century terms, I might describe this as everybody doing their own thing, but nobody really understanding what anybody else’s thing really is.

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
— T.S. Eliot

And therein lies what may be an even greater problem facing us today. It’s something we all experience every time we watch the news on TV, or visit a website to find a fact, or ask our new friend Siri to answer a question, or try to do research about which new car to buy, or figure out what the ingredients in a can of soup we’re about to open really are—or embark on any of a thousand other tasks and activities that need to be carried out in any given day. Each time we do anything like this, we are depending on whatever source of information we’re consulting to provide not only relevant and useful information, but also some context in which to consider how to apply the knowledge we’ve just gained. In other words, what we need is a way to make a connection between disparate bits and bytes of information and their practical application. Otherwise, we may find ourselves wondering, as did T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Paradoxically, in the midst of a technological revolution, one would assume science would prevail. Unfortunately, it does not. We love technology and we consume it, but we don’t realize how much science is behind our inventions. It is not the age of science but the age of technology. We are more interested in how to get information rather than how to use the information we get. This is the tension between means and ends: the tension of the liberal arts.

On a larger scale, the need for some real-world alchemy that will help us transmute raw information into wise practice has long been the concern of fields such as law. In that regard, one is reminded that St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Law is an ordinance of reason for the common good..” The field of medicine, as well, is oriented toward the practical application of even the most theoretical areas of research. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the social sciences, for instance, where applied research is all too often looked down upon as being of only temporary or fleeting value and use. Yet today, in addition to science and technology, we must look to the humanities and social sciences. It is exactly in this area where we as a society, a nation, and a global community, need real-time answers to questions that have critical and far-reaching implications for the future. That is not to say that solutions to the problems we face can be patched together with some kind of intellectual quick fixes; not at all. But neither can we watch civilization’s clock tick away its many dangerous hours while thinkers and doers decline to engage one another in useful dialogue.

International peace and security; immigration; the relationship of religion to secularism and science; the advancement of national and global economies; progress in education; the levying and collection of taxes; and countless other issues of great complexity require both the attention of scholars and the involvement of policymakers in order for all of us to find our way towards a more peaceful, equitable world. In this endeavor we rely on scholars, who have the unique ability to reintegrate and reconnect the disparate, ever-multiplying strands of knowledge, to bring meaning to information and forge wisdom upon the anvil of changing times. But we also depend on the work of policymakers who must implement the lessons that can be gleaned from the efforts of scholars; policies created without the backing of deep knowledge and framed by wisdom are likely to fail. We have had too many of these failures already, too many adventures in policymaking rooted in shallow understanding that have left both our nation and people across the globe in need of new ideas, new remedies, and new ways forward.

It is in the service of these goals that Carnegie Corporation has devoted significant resources to “bridging the gap”  between scholars and policymakers, which in recent years only seems to have gotten wider. Perhaps this is understandable, given that the policy community must often react to global crises with little time or opportunity to reflect on the wider implications of international events while the increasingly specialized academic community all too often remains preoccupied with theoretical matters. 
Nevertheless, backed by the belief that academic rigor is not incompatible with policy relevance, the Corporation has embarked on a number of major projects aimed at closing that yawning distance between scholars and policymakers. One of our recent efforts involved sending out a request for proposals to the 22 American-based members of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA). The request called for uniquely practical, on-the-ground, policy-focused programs, and offered to award two-year grants of up to $1 million each for projects with a strong chance of success, especially from institutions willing to rethink tenure rules so that academics are free to pursue policy work and challenge convention and merge ideas across international and disciplinary lines. Experts in the international relations field, chosen for their understanding of the policymaking process in Washington, D.C., as well as awareness of the administrative challenges of universities, reviewed 17 submissions from APSIA members. The following five were chosen: Columbia University, Syracuse University, Tufts University, the University of Denver, and the University of Washington. Their proposals include fresh ideas such as rapid response funds to make academics available on short notice to join counterparts at the State Department as soon as an international crisis breaks, and incorporating nontraditional outlets for research, from new forms of online publishing and social media to documentary videos and TED-style talks.

Support for Scholarship in the Social Sciences and Humanities In Action

Further, building on the Corporation’s long-standing commitment to supporting individual scholars of exemplary promise, we recently inaugurated the Andrew Carnegie Fellows program, a major annual undertaking that will provide support for scholars in the social sciences and humanities. Recipients will receive up to $200,000 each, which will enable them to devote between one and two years to research and writing. The first class of 31 fellowship recipients, announced this spring, is an exceptional group of established and emerging scholars, journalists, and authors whose work distills knowledge, enriches our culture, and equips leaders in the realms of science, law, business, the arts, and, of course, public policy. The fellowships aim to provide new perspectives on the program’s overarching theme for 2015: Current and Future Challenges to U.S. Democracy and International Order. Winning proposals address issues including policing and race, big data and privacy, the impact of an aging population, the safety of generic drugs, and how attitudes are formed among voters. The Corporation will award a total of $6.2 million to the inaugural class.  

These might be regarded as big programs for one foundation, but we also recognize that they are small steps towards developing an understanding of how we have arrived at this moment in time. Then, perhaps, as problems and issues evolve, we can invoke the lessons of history, apply intellectual rigor, look to humanitarian concerns, and start to open some new doors to the future that all of mankind can pass through not just without harm, but with real hope. At least, that is our aspiration as we follow the mandate of our founder, Andrew Carnegie, who urged us all to “set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” Our work continues on in that spirit and we look forward with great excitement to what we will learn in the years ahead.