In Essays & Poems, Faculty Voices

Existential Intimacy of Learning: A Noetic Turn from STEM

by Peter M. Rojcewicz, PhD
Pacifica Graduate Institute Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs

STEM Education

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses dominate the academy, valuing technical training over broad based learning. While its scientific and technological literacy provides some skills essential to employment, STEM’s tech savvy and quantitative focus undervalues imagination, separates perception from cognition, narrows intuitive awareness, and validates nature’s domination. Its grand narratives encourage universal generalizations and unrealistic taxonomies.

STEM enshrines logic and calculation; it idolizes objectivity. Privileging exteriority over interiority, it projects a flatland view of reality. Its dominant modes of knowing are scientific materialism and positivism. We are not disembodied intellects but complex, creative beings with physical, social, expressive and spiritual needs. What begins in our elementary and middles schools on a personal level as an instrumentation of reason that narrows and routinizes thinking, ends up on the socio-cultural level as a mechanization of life, shackling cognitive freedom.

As such, we witness today an imbalance in the academy injurious to one’s integral humanity. We stand at a crossroad and must decide whether we continue to support narrow, piece-meal growth over human wholeness. The analytical STEM disciplines of higher education with their codified procedures do not address full human development. STEM knowledge by itself leads to a narrow view of knowledge and life as wholly rational, controllable, and objective.

Higher education desperately needs a pluralistic conception of what constellates intelligent thought and behavior that joins analytical reason with creative, hands-on engagement with art making to derive more accurate models of mind and reality. To that end, I offer Noetic Education as a constructive postmodern critique of higher education’s hyper-rational emphasis as displayed in STEM-heavy curricula. Its holistic, integral approach sees humanity and the earth not as a collection of isolated facts, but a dynamic relational web.

Noetic Education

The purpose of Noetic education is to enhance the capacities of the mind-body, transforming the self through a release of the reconstructive imagination that allows us deep entry into any “alien turn of mind” (Clifford Geertz). “Noetic” comes from the Greek word nous, meaning all encompassing ways of knowing. Noetic education values learning through a wide repertoire of modalities, including the imaginal, aesthetic, and transcendent. Its vision of the interdependence of mind/body/spirit and humanity with the earth emphasizes holistic, cooperative, and relational learning.

If we are to foster human wholeness and not fail people in the healthy formation of their lives, definitions of being smart must move beyond a strict definition of reason as but a tool of quantitative efficiency. We must understand learning not only in terms of what can be assessed by tests of strict quantification. Noetic education seeks inter-sensory thinking and fully animated thought, glimpsed in disruptive moments of Aha!

Noetic Education through the arts and sciences makes available to the mind-body more than logic, not less, integrating bodily perceptions with rational thought. Noetic education pursues the intimate engagement of myth, symbol, art, and religious systems of knowledge with the calculation and logic of modern empirical science. Mythopoetic thinking in images allows one to see all experiences as fundamentally literal and metaphoric, subject to interpretation and change.

Metaphor drives beyond the literal, liberating us from repressive cognitive styles. Mythic thinking is direct critical thinking in images and metaphors that provide perspectives toward life, capable of transforming mere events into meaningful experience of soul. Literate “readers” of images are empowered to enter the designs and expressions of the peak achievements of knowledge along the human adventure. Without this rational and aesthetic capacity to grasp images, we are orphaned from the rich conversation of humanity begun in primeval times. This union of objective and subjective knowledge is best achieved through the arts and sciences that include art making and aesthetic literacy.

Noetic Literacy through the Arts

Creative and innovative people in all fields demonstrate a broad-based literacy beyond written language and numbers, joining discursive and non-discursive knowing, as well as abstract and embodied learning. There is something inherent in the images of each art’s “language” that prepare the mind for sophisticated cognitive activities, conceptual and perceptual. Image making is the mind’s fundamental means of knowing; no cognitive operation is more central to consciousness. New learning results when lived experiences provide, confirm, or modify images of oneself and the world. Not simply metaphors for ideas, images relate to how people acquire, organize, retrieve, and use information.

Accomplished scientists, like artists everywhere, note the importance of imagery in their most significant work. Jerome Friedman knew scientific “Reasoning is constructed with movable images, just as poetry is.” By imagining he could travel with a beam of light at 186,000 miles per second, Albert Einstein acknowledged the key role kinesthetic and visual images played in his Gedanken thought experiment. A vision of molecules forming the archetypal image of the uroboros snake led to Frederick von Kekule’s discovery of the six–carbon benzene ring. Creativity and innovation result from the generative union of imagination and reason.

Whether we look to art or science, it is clear that broad based knowledge rests upon interrelationships between distinct clusters of multi-sensory images in the mind. The best artists and scientists integrate intuition and unconscious processes with mental skills, including accurate observation, spatial and kinesthetic thought, identification of key parts of a complex whole, and recognition or invention of patterns governing systems (Root-Bernstein). When STEM-based elements fuse with the arts and humanities through complex, creative work, people achieve an existential intimacy of learning with their all-sided humanity.

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