The pandemic crisis, as a global systemic phenomenon, has unveiled a series of dormant weaknesses in our society, showing that most of the current world's problems are systemic (global warming, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and not least, extreme poverty and economic inequality). Since these are interdependent problems, the world's leaders should have a corresponding systemic and holistic preparation. Regrettably, this perspective is missing today in our educational system.
Is this kind of multi-disciplinary, systemic training possible? The answer is yes, based on over 35 years of experience. The Cortona-week, founded in 1985 by Prof. Pier Luigi Luisi as a professor at the ETHZ (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich), was supported by the ETHZ for many years, and since 2017 through the auspices of an APS association, the Cortona Friends. Thanks to its uninterrupted 36 years of evolution and experience, the Cortona week has now reached the maturity to be expanded to the rest of the world.
The Cortona week has been founded and promoted with the purpose of forming a new class of world leaders provided with the necessary holistic and systemic perspective. The initial slogan was "Science and the other aspects of life", where science was seen as a holistic concept combining natural sciences and humanities. This method is in contrast with the current practice at universities where a student is only trained in one discipline at a time-specialization is also needed nowadays, but obviously insufficient to deal with the systemic problems just mentioned. Furthermore, the increasing demands of the one-dimensional academic curriculum (also necessary in our world today) makes it harder for our graduate students, the world leaders of tomorrow, to be exposed to the values of ethics, art, music, poetry, and personal introspection.
The solution to this gap cannot neither be to add more hours to study the missing subjects to an already packed academic curriculum, nor change the entire educational system. The answer may lie in adopting, as a complementary educational system, the structure and mission of the Cortona week.
How does the Cortona week work?
In this yearly meeting, between 100 and 120 students and other participants “mingle” with charismatic science teachers, poets, musicians, spiritual leaders, and businessmen-sharing their meals and coffee breaks in the same Park Hotel.
It is important to emphasize that this is both a retreat and a school, so part-time attendance (one day or two) is not allowed, not even for teachers. Everybody stays for the whole week, engaged in a continuous exchange of ideas in a free-wheeling dialogue that is nowhere else to be found.
There are two different teaching methods employed during the week. In the morning, oral presentations (occasionally as round-table discussions) are followed by philosophical and critical breakout group discussions. Furthermore, each afternoon, the participants, divided into small groups, actively engage for up to three hours in “the other aspects of life”, such as painting, sculpture, theater, music, and meditation- with carefully selected professional teachers. The point is to show that interdisciplinarity is not only something to talk about, but to experience with your body and soul.
In this systemic approach, instead of simply providing “information” about the state of the world, the students and participants go through “transformative learning" based on personal and collective experiences that will expand their horizon and consciousness—and therefore their actions. The psychological equilibrium and well-being of the participants are also the subject of constant care.
Among the many teachers who have taken part throughout all these 35 years, we may mention in random order David Bohm, brother David Steindl-Rast, Francisco Varela, Stuart Kauffman, Albert Hofmann, Fritjof Capra, Anton Zeilinger, Roshi Joan Halifax, Richard Ernst, Lyn Margulis, Alexander Lowen, Federico Faggin, Michel Bitbol, Ernesto Burgio, Ben Hurlbut, Cliff Saron, Marko Pogacnik, Irwin and Alexander Lazlo, and Chungliang Al Huang.
In Academia and in the world at large, there is a diffuse sense that our educational system needs a new direction. There are a few online courses and webinars today with a serious systemic and multidisciplinary perspective in which some of us are, in fact, involved- in keeping with the systemic thinking and transformative learning of the Cortona week. However, this widely-shared feeling has also spawned a new generation of webinars and conferences, often featuring fashionable keywords like consciousness, mindfulness, or meditation. These are fine concepts in and of themselves, but many of these webinars/conferences today appear to be a paradoxical rehash of the old New Age movement-and we must be careful not to confuse the one with the other.
Each of the Cortona weeks has been a great success and there is plenty of (private) documentation describing the changes in outlooks, actions, and ethics brought about by each course. It is remarkable what can be achieved in just one intensive week of this kind of "transformative learning" work.
Despite its great success, the Cortona week has remained in the past primarily restricted to ETHZ students, almost like a private undertaking of the ETHZ. Imagine now something great, perhaps utopic: that hundreds or thousands of colleges around the world were to organize their own Cortona week. The, we are confident, a new class of world leaders would emerge, prepared to handle tomorrow’s many challenges and guide us to a better future for our planet. We have to work on that.
(Article prepared by: Pier Luigi Luisi, prof. Emeritus ETH Zurich, founder of the Cortona week, APS Cortona friends, Rome; Federico Faggin, physicist, engineer, Elvia e Federico Faggin Foundation; Fritjof Capra, physicist, system scientist, author, Berkeley, Cal., USA; Francesco Lapenta, Director of the Institute of Future and Innovation Studies, John Cabot University, Rome).