The Promise of Consilience

12 Dec

Consilience Terms

One hundred seventy five years ago a term was coined as a name for the phenomenon in science where separate traditions of research and evidence “leap together” in a higher-order theory. The outstanding example of this phenomenon is the grand theory of natural evolution, which came together as an overarching explanation for the adaptation and advancement of life on our planet. Separate research traditions such as paleontology, molecular biology, genetics, and comparative anatomy seemed to resonate with a higher vibration that transcended and included their distinct lines of scientific inquiry.

As time went on, this same word was used to describe a hoped-for reconciliation of sort between the sciences which study facts and measurement, and the humanities which concern themselves with value and meaning. In a 1959 talk entitled “The Two Cultures” and presented to the Senate House in Cambridge, England, C.P. Snow laid out his grim prediction that the irreconcilable differences between these two domains would continue to undermine Western education.

The sociobiologist E.O. Wilson (1998) answered Snow’s prediction with his influential book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, wherein he argued that our quest to understand reality, construct meaning, and celebrate beauty are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary in the mind’s great adventure for knowledge.

And there’s the word I want to reflect on further: Consilience.

In my professional environment of higher education there has been much talk in recent decades about “learning communities,” “integrative learning,” and “creative collaboration.” Educators and school administrators are aware of how the division of academic disciplines, departmental programs, and specialized services for students is shattering the vision of what we once knew as a college education. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish the traditional objective of education (referring to the art of “leading out” a student’s curiosity and ability to learn) in the face of a growing demand for straightforward instruction and passing performance on assessments.

The question becomes How can we bring together these many pieces which are necessary to education, and go beyond mere instruction and standardized tests so that our schools can become centers of creative innovation, genuine community, and lifelong learning? My proposal takes a different approach to the attempts at throwing a lasso around all the loose pieces and building skywalks between departmental silos. What we need is a deep understanding of consilience and how to foster it in the learning alliance of teachers and students, in every classroom, boardroom, student program, and strategic initiative.

To help in this effort, I will introduce and operationalize six key terms which I see as critical to a deep understanding of, and commitment to, consilience in education.


First of all, we need to understand that everything exists in a system. Relationship and its connecting forces are the essence (the true being) of reality. Even though we might look around us and see many separate individual things – and regard ourselves as essentially separate from everything else – the best of science and spirituality has confirmed time and again that there really is no such thing as a separate individual. Nuclear forces, electromagnetism, molecular bonds, gravitation, sexual attraction, emotional affinity, social networks, local cultures, and complex ecosystems are really what we are working with (or against) all the time. Our very existence is their manifestation.

Because reality is a system – or better, a unified system (universe) of many smaller-scale systems – our health and success in anything depends on how conscious and intentional we are as agents of systems. Schools are systems situated in larger social systems, inside still larger cultural systems. And inside every school, on a daily basis, there are numerous “episodes” of interaction in systems known as classrooms. Successful education transpires in classrooms where teachers and students engage one another as agents of a shared (if only temporary) system.


Every system is characterized by some degree of coherence (discussed below), where the flow of energy and information is smooth and harmonious. But coherence doesn’t just happen; the conditions have to be right. Priming refers to what is done in order to maximize the chances that teachers and students will “jump together” (the literal meaning of consilience) into the higher experience of learning. This involves everything from classroom dialogue, to the use of teaching media, to the way a topic is introduced and presented, to both the nonverbal and spoken signs of mutual respect, to the physical space and furnishings of the classroom itself, to the internal state and personal investment of attention on the part of teacher and students alike.

When it comes down to it, successful education is not something that a teacher “does” to students, and it isn’t something that standardized assessments can measure. When the conditions are right, it happens. This distinguishes education from mere instruction, which reduces the classroom experience to nothing more than transmitting information and organizing data. Consilience in the classroom must be primed.


System is a higher-level perspective on those connecting forces mentioned earlier. It all mysteriously works as one harmonious, rhythmic, and integral whole. But as I said, every system is really comprised of deeper systems, which means that a “consilient” classroom is actually a higher-order manifestation of the quality of engagement happening between teachers and students, and among the students themselves. In education the basic “units” are teachers and students, or more specifically, a teacher and each student. This relationship has the promise of becoming what I call an “effective learning alliance,” where both teacher and student are fully present and actively engaged in learning.

Synapse is a term borrowed from neuroscience and names the microscopic gap between nerve cells in the brain. Nerve cells (or neurons) conduct electrical impulses that travel down their axons, activating the release of molecules known as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters enter that gap and prompt the cell membrane of the next neuron to either open its gates to the flow of ions which regenerates the impulse of the pre-synaptic neuron, or keep them closed and let it effectively fizzle out. While the electrical impulse is “digital” (either ‘on’ or ‘off’), the amount and mixture of neurotransmitters in the synapse allow for “analog” (‘more’ or ‘less’) changes between cells and across the entire brain.


What I earlier called the connecting forces in relationship are really another way of talking about the energy that flows throughout a system. In the context of consilient education we can see this as the current that flows from teacher to student, from student to teacher, and from student to student. Its different nuances of meaning – something present and ongoing, something that flows (air, water, electricity), something that moves and makes things happen (like currency in an economy), and something of relevant value – enrich our understanding of consilient education.

In this context we cannot force the current that connects individuals and elevates them into a higher experience of community. Community itself is not something that is arrived at by simply adding individuals together; it must be primed. We might speak of current as the life energy, mental force, creative intelligence, and flow of meaning that connects, inspires, and transforms those involved in learning. But in the end it remains only something we can open ourselves to and participate in, never cause to happen.


Giving attention and care to priming the system and synapses of education serves this inherently unpredictable event of consilience. When the conditions are right, the current “jumps” across the synapse and engages both teacher and students in a genuinely self-transcending experience. We might think of a spark that jumps across the two poles of a spark plug, and consilience certainly can be regarded as a kind of illumination: a flash of insight, intuition, and greater understanding.

But let’s remember that the neurons in our brains do not actually pass electrical impulses directly to each other. The arc of communication between them isn’t a hard-wired bridge, but rather a potentiated space allowing for countless adjustments to be made to what would otherwise be an all-or-nothing prospect. Similarly, what I’m calling the arcing of consilience will always reflect the unique individualities of those involved. Just as slight changes in the amount and mixture of neurotransmitters will affect (excite or inhibit by degrees) the generation of an electrical impulse in the post-synaptic neuron, so too the current in a system like a classroom will be the dynamic product of unique individuals leaping together in the shared experience of learning.

All of that is to say that each individual, teacher and student, will jump (arc) into consilience as an individual, but everyone involved will go beyond their individual self. In consilient education, learners leap out of themselves and into a communal – or at least an interpersonal – experience. This event of self-transcendence elevates them beyond their present assumption of knowledge, and even beyond the teacher’s lesson plan, into a space of higher resonance.


When the nerve cells are effectively communicating in circuits, and when neural circuits are resonating across the specialized networks of our brain, the entire organ will enter a dynamic state of coherence. When our brain as a neural system is coherent, our mood is stable, attention is steady, and our thoughts are clear. An inner composure supports deeper insight, artistic creativity, strategic thinking, and effective action – but also quiet contemplation. A coherent brain just works better. And as the owner of a coherent brain, you can do everything far better than when your brain is confused, irritable, or depressed.

Consilient educational systems such as classrooms demonstrate similar virtues: consilient partners (teachers and students) are calm and attentive, creatively engaged, insatiably curious, and actively involved in the learning opportunity. Oftentimes partners will be able to finish each other’s sentences, playing off each other’s “riffs” like members of a consilient jazz ensemble. They are caught up in the current of an ineffable experience, and when they come back down into their individual centers of consciousness, their minds are more open, their excitement for learning is stronger than ever, and their understanding of the topic of discussion has shifted to a new orientation.

Coherence is the optimal state of any system. It happens when the connecting forces between and among individuals move them to leap out of themselves and into the higher experience of community. By now it should be clear that this doesn’t happen accidentally, but neither can it be manufactured. We do our best to prepare for its emergence, and when it comes, we learn how to “go with the flow.”

Despite the fact that our present education system is failing students at higher rates than ever before, and failing them in both senses of the term, hope is not lost. For as long as human beings come together and open themselves to the transforming spirit of truth and love and beauty and peace, consilience will take them the rest of the way.


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