Arthur Zajonc: "Live the Questions Now"
November 21, 2011
Arthur Zajonc - professor of physics at Amherst College, director of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and co-author with Parker Palmer of The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal - came to Exeter recently as a visiting speaker. A proponent of applying reflective, contemplative traditions to academic pursuits, he spoke about his view that traditional perspectives on reality – such as the scientific empirical approach to phenomena – are enriched through interior, subjective experience. "Experience is the final arbiter and there is internal experience as well as outer experience," Zajonc explained to students.
"Arthur Zajonc is a person who helps us bring together different ways of knowing - scientific, intuitive, artistic, contemplative, experiential, emotional - and he deeply values them all, seeing them as lenses that help us to deepen our understanding of a subject," says Religion Instructor Kathy Brownback. "He is interested in interdisciplinary education not just as two different disciplines happening to coincide, but with a real effort from both to understand the other and be enriched by the other. He's also very interested in modern physics and how it is changing how we see the world, in a way that sees perspective and relationship as central to our understanding - which takes us into Harkness."
"Mr. Zajonc refined my view of the world and truth," says Chantel '12, a student in Modern Physics. "My biggest takeaway from his visit was the idea that most of what we as humans experience in the world is founded on things as intangible as light and sound, and that these things follow observable rules and behaviors. To acknowledge that is to bridge the gap to the perceived differences between people."
Zajonc started his all-school assembly with a simple question: "What's the problem or the question you're going to live with your whole life?" He then told the stories of real people who had questions "thrust upon them" – Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 at the age of 6 broke school segregation in New Orleans, and the Dalai Lama, exiled from his country by Chinese invasion.
"Putting ourselves in the shoes of another is a great act of moral importance," Zajonc explained to students, as he encouraged them to consider everyone involved in Bridges' drama, and to ponder her question, "What does it mean to be human?" he asked, "Can you imagine what Ruby felt?" as she walked to school surrounded by police marshals. "What the police felt?" "What those yelling felt?" "What the people who threw tomatoes at her felt?" "What the people who threatened her life felt?"
Zajonc also told stories of people who chose their personal questions: Einstein, whose search resulted in his 1905 paper on special relativity, and Franz Kappus, an aspiring young poet who sought advice from poet Rainer Maria Rilke. "Don't search for the answer," Rilke responded. "Try to love the questions themselves . . . Live the questions now."
An exploder of boundaries, Zajonc met with several classes during his visit, including a session that mingled religion and science classes. His delight in this cross-disciplinary event was clear – "Existentialism meets modern physics," he said – as he challenged the students with fundamental questions. "What is the world, really?" he asked. "What is the nature of truth?"
Ideas flew across the circle of chairs, with students responding to Zajonc's questions and asking many of their own.
"What is an atom?" Zajonc asked. "How big is it?" "Small," responded the students. "What does it look like?" "Round," answered the students. "Is that a perception or imagination?" challenged Zajonc.
Zajonc affirmed that empirical observation is not the only reality, that other inner realities count. "If you keep trying to get behind the phenomenon to find something that is more real, that's the wrong direction," he explained. "Why aren't phenomena of the inner world taken seriously by scientists?"
"Don't sell out," Zajonc advised students. "Realize that you will fail and that's OK. You will never reach your ideal. Live in the gap – that's your question."
At Exeter, Zajonc met with a variety of religion, math and science classes. He also met with faculty - many of whom had been reading The Heart of Higher Education in a book group - and with Principal Tom Hassan. The visit was sponsored by The Schleyer Family Faculty Professional Development Fund for Religion and Science.
Interested in learning more?
Hear Zajonc's recent interview on American Public Media, with Krista Tippett on "On Being"...
— Nicole Pellaton