How academic freedom strengthens the bonds of accumulated knowledge | Nicholas Christakis

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the
evolutionary origins of a good society. This idea that there might be a blueprint
for the kind of society that people might make. In fact, that this might be a universal blueprint
that people around the world might uniformly manifest these qualities. Let me give you an example. For instance, everywhere in the world we find
friendship. In every society people are friends with each
other. In every society people love their mates,
for example. In every society people cooperate with each
other. Another thing that people do in every society
is they teach each other things. Now you probably take this for granted that
people teach each other things but actually it’s really unusual in the animal kingdom. So, for example, many animals learn stuff. A little fish in the sea can learn that if
it swims up to the light it’ll find food there and it learns. So swim up to the light, I find food. And it’s learning independently. Some animals, however, learn socially, and
social learning is a rather different thing. For example, by imitation. So I watch – so you put your hand in the
fire and you burn your hand. That’s like the fish swimming to the light. You learn something. You’ve paid a price. You burned your hand but now you’ve learned
something that the fire burns. Now I can watch you put your hand in the fire
and I get almost as much knowledge but I pay none of the price. So that’s incredibly efficient. That kind of social learning is incredibly
efficient and this is much less common in the animal kingdom. But we do something else. We not only learn from each other, we teach
each other stuff. And this is exceedingly rare in the animal
kingdom. We do it, elephants do it, certain primates
do it, and certain other species engage in the affirmative teaching of one animal teaching
another animal. And this is extraordinary and it lies actually
at the root of our capacity for culture. The very fact that we are able to accumulate
knowledge and transmit it across space and time so that when you are born you actually
are born into a world in which calculus has already been invented. You were born into a world in which animals
have already been domesticated. You were born into a world in which roads
have already been built. All this accumulated knowledge is yours for
the taking. You were born into a world in which the stars
have been mapped. Other people have done this and they’ve transmitted
it to you across time. You are learning from them. They are teaching you. Or across space. Somewhere else in the world something is invented
or a friend of mine discovers something and teaches it to me. There’s a lateral transmission that’s taking
place, not just an intertemporal transmission that’s taking place. So teaching is a key and fundamental aspect
of our humanity. It’s been shaped by natural selection, it’s
universally seen in societies around the world, and it lies at the core of our ability to
be a cultural animal which, in turn, is what makes us the ascendant species on the planet. Well, how are we going to teach and learn
from each other if we don’t talk to each other. And how are we going to teach and learn from
each other if we lie to each other. In order to optimally enact this trait which
is so deeply fundamental to our human nature, we have to allow people to express themselves. We have to privilege a kind of communication
that allows us to teach and learn from each other. And so I would make an argument in a kind
of indirect way that what universities are trying to do when they privilege academic
freedom, when they say we want to create an environment in which people can really teach
and learn from each other in keeping with this evolutionary heritage is they have to
honor this commitment to free and open expression. So I’ve been an academic my whole life. I love scholarship. I love learning things. I love knowing things. I love discovering things. It’s a source of deep personal satisfaction. It’s very fulfilling to be able to see new
things about the world. In fact, that feeling of discovery when you’re
a scientist is unlike any other feeling I have. And once you’ve drunk from that well you just
want to drink again. If you’re the first person to see something
it’s so exciting. It’s such a special feeling you’re desperate
for it again. And even the best scientists have that feeling
very rarely. They have sort of minor versions of that feeling
but that real feeling of discovery is extraordinary. So I’ve spent my whole life trying to discover
knowledge, trying to communicate knowledge in academia. And therefore I’ve been to universities around
the world and I think I can confidently say that our universities are the best ones on
the planet. And I’m not going to call out other countries
but I’ve been to most of the other countries that have important universities, and our
universities are extraordinary. And I would even say that they are a hallmark
of our civilization. They reflect our democratic principles. They reflect our wealth. They’re a driver of our economic growth, the
United States and elsewhere in the world. And so I see United States universities or
American universities as a marker of our civilization. They reflect the best of us. They reflect our commitment to open expression. They reflect our commitment to democratic
principles. They reflect our wealth. They’re a product of our wealth, as well. So, for me they are I would even say the pinnacle
of our civilization. Certainly they’re near the pinnacle or part
of the pinnacle. And therefore they should be treasured and
respected and supported. And, in fact, one of my concerns lately is
that many faculty have I think lost sight of what the purpose or what our role in our
society is. And why do we get to live these lives devoted
to scholarship? We are in these universities because of the
endowments that have been given typically by wealthy individuals or because of tax dollars
and those monies flow to universities not so that we can have some kind of cushy lifestyle. They flow so that we can further the mission
of a university which is the preservation, production, and dissemination of knowledge. And to the extent that our universities fulfill
that mission, I think we can keep the confidence of the society of which we are a part. But to the extent that we do not honor that
mission, to the extent that we seem to be concerned about preserving our cynosures,
to the extent that we seem to be overly ideological, we lose the confidence of the broader society
upon whose generosity, I would argue, we depend.

8 thoughts on “How academic freedom strengthens the bonds of accumulated knowledge | Nicholas Christakis

  • The magic the gathering fan at your office was just looking for a way to sneak in accumulated knowledge into the title.

  • My relatives express their academic freedom by posting Minions memes on Facebook extolling the virtues of crystals, while denouncing the evils of vaccines and the lies of the scientific community. What a time to gain a TRUE education!

  • "The Stand Together Foundation, a national poverty-fighting initiative partly funded by the Koch family."
    This channel has become a right-wing propaganda network for the Koch brother.

  • Yes, our universities are extraordinary. However, in recent years they have been transformed from a place of learning into a place of indoctrination. They have become a place seeking not only to limit speech but to also dictate which words, thought, and feelings are acceptable.

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