The Cortona-week experiment

The question of transdisciplinarity between science and humanities

23 JUNE 2016,
The medieval town of Cortona, Arezzo, Italy
The medieval town of Cortona, Arezzo, Italy

Globalization is a catchword, but it depicts well the reality dominating our international and national exchange of goods and culture. As never before, different ethnic and different religious people have come in contact with each other; and aside from this general view, we see that at the local level every city park planning, every marketing modification, and every health action, necessitates the cooperation of specialists with a different background.

This mixing, this collaboration among different people, is usually rendered with another catch word, interdisciplinarity, or, better, transdisciplinarity - namely the capability of relating to and appreciating the value of different disciplines (which does not mean, of course, knowing all of them in detail, which would be impossible). On the other hand, our academic education systems prepare young specialists in only one discipline at a time, but generally does not give these young people any clue on how to tackle the problems of our world on the basis of an interdisciplinary approach. The implementation of ethical and religious principles is also missing in our academic education system. In addition, the necessity of the hard and long academic curriculum keeps our graduate students and young managers in the best years of their life away from the values of art, music, poetry and personal introspection - with the danger of creating leaders who are dry from the personal point of view (of course these are generalizations and there are some good exceptions).

This consideration explains why in some of the more enlighten academic institutions there is a growing interest on programs of transdisciplinarity: several conferences all over the world and, in addition, several important schools have added to the curriculum of science students a few hours on philosophy of science, or of art. This is all good, but not sufficient, and let me then tell you what I consider a much better solution, based on personal experience.

The Cortona-week

Cortona is a small, beautiful medieval town of Etruscan origin in Tuscany, not far from Florence and Assisi. It is the place, every September, of the Cortona-week. This is a residential summer school for graduate students of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule Zurich – ETHZ), also open to other guests. It was conceived and established in 1985 by me while I was professor of chemistry in the department of material sciences at the ETHZ. I directed the Cortona-week for about twenty years, till I retired from the ETHZ, and collaborated with the new direction for a few years afterwards. After that, I tried to export this experiment into the world under the headline International Cortona Week. One of these international gatherings was financed by the Michigan Fetzer Institute mostly for American graduate students; and another, Cortona-India in Hyderabad, mostly for Indian students (but we had there 16 different nationalities).

In this residential week, graduate students from the sciences and other faculties mixed with artists, musicians, and religious leaders, (a total of ca. 150 people) work and live together for one whole week (partial participation is not allowed, not even for the teachers). There are lectures, but the main characteristic of the Cortona working week are the so-called workshops, in parallel, in which a small group of people (10-20) at a time do experiential work - be meditation, painting, sculpturing, theater, psychological work, dancing, or body oriented exercises - at their choice. The main concept here is that it is not enough to talk about transdisciplinarity, you have to do it.

Initially the direction of the ETHZ did not approve the project (I had to endure even a strong rebuke by the Rektor in front of the plenary session (the so-called “ProfessorenKonferenz”). Finally, I had the good luck of meeting an open-minded Swiss entrepreneur, the late Branco Weiss, who was also member of the ETHZ board (having donated considerable amounts of money to that University). He financed the Cortona-week for the first five years - no strings attached - then asked rather firmly the ETHZ direction to take it over. The ETHZ direction had to swallow it, but the new professor who took my place in the Cortona direction was a very good diplomat, contacts with the ETHZ became excellent and it must be said that to this day the ETHZ remains the only school of higher education in the world that supports such a holistic, interdisciplinary initiative. In a couple of years I was completely and elegantly ousted - not even in the board with a honorary title - but this is the way that usually goes.

The Cortona-week working day is divided in three parts: the early morning (before breakfast) with parallel workshops on meditation, tai-chi, choral singing; then, after breakfast, two main lectures or panel discussions with ample time for plenary discussions; then, the afternoon is devoted to the afore mentioned experiential workshops, divided in three distinct blocks (experiential, artistic, theoretical). The idea here is, that each participant chooses what is, for her/him, essential in order to activate or re-activate that part of life that they have so far neglected, or forgotten - being music or poetry or their own body. And by that, and with the input by the morning charismatic lectures, acquire a new, full sense of life. It is a truly shared life for the entire week, all participants are in the same park hotel, they mix without any order at the dining tables and coffee breaks also with all teachers, continuing the discussion and, mostly, getting to know each other. I must add that this was the structure of the first Cortona-week in 1985, and the structure has been always basically the same, except for minimal structural changes.

Each Cortona-week is devoted to a different theme; subjects related to neuroscience, cognitive science, spirituality, and ethics have been central. However, the main point is to offer a holistic view of life, based on tolerance and respect for the “others”, capable of giving the participants the new frontiers of science, art, philosophy, so that this week may act as catalyst for an in depth transformation of life at large - the basis for becoming “better” scientists, i.e., more complete human beings - the basis for a better future of the world. Discussions go on all the day and up to the night, on subjects which often are chosen by the participants. For example, in the last two mentioned International Cortona weeks, both held under the headline “Science and spirituality”, some questions at the round table discussions were: "Can all reality be explained in terms of atoms and their interactions?"; "Is nature 'reasonable and rational'; that is, can the cosmos ever be understood in terms of reason alone?"; "Do we need spirituality to give meaning to life? "; "How can we ensure personal dignity and freedom in a society dominated by science and technology?".

One “negative” thing about the Cortona-week lies in the finances: the necessity to look all around the world for the best teachers and workshop leaders, implies the expenses for transport and accommodation for the entire staff, typically 25-30 people, so that the budget for a normal Cortona-week is around 150 thousand euro (with some small grants to participants who need it).

Looking for evolution

The Cortona-week has been recognized--also at European level--as the ideal gathering for interdisciplinarity, mostly between science and humanities, and capable indeed of providing a broader horizon and catalyzing in the participants the re-birth of the aspects of life which are generally gone lost in a strict, unidimensional academic education. In fact, the subtitle of the Cortona-week was “science and the other aspects of life”... Of course, the golden time of the Cortona-week – (the first 10-15 years) are long gone, those weeks were indeed like works of art, and, as in the case of re-making works of art, the re-makes are imitations. People of the old guard say that the initial spirit is in the grand part lost, and that all became more provincial. Still, the Cortona-week is meaningful, fulfills a very important, unique job for the younger generations, and rightly enough, is generally booked out well in advance by internet registration.

The Cortona-week was born in the eighties, and after thirty odd years, the world has changed. There is no doubt that we are in a unprecedented critical situation in our planet, with pollution, global warming, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, the extreme poverty of many populations and the consequent migrations, with the corresponding de-stabilization of democracy. It is no exaggeration to say that the humankind is in great danger, and it is also sufficiently clear that all this is caused mostly by a class of world leaders – in politics, economy, banking, energy production, automobile and electronic manufacturing - who mostly think of their own profit without any real ethical constrains. And we cannot go ahead with the class of leaders who, despite the various Paris summits, pretend to go ahead doing “business as usual”.

I believe then that we need to construct something new, and direly needed for our world of today, and this can be only achieved by helping create world leaders with newly refreshed values in science, ethics, ecology, economy, spirituality. All things in nature must evolve, and the challenge for a biological transformation of the Cortona-week is in front of us.