No doubt we live in a particularly difficult era, characterized by ecological disasters, terrorism, diffuse extreme poverty, unstoppable migration, political and racial intolerance, several dozens of local wars including the risk of an international nuclear catastrophe. There are all systemic problems, caused by a multitude of interdependent and interdisciplinary factors, and we cannot probably say that all depends on the political and economic leaders of the world today. But it is also clear that these leaders bear a lot of responsibility.
The leaders of the world today –political leaders, bank directors, CEO of the multinationals and so on- come usually from our universities, and the real question is indeed whether and to what extent the classic academic educational system is suited for the task of building world leaders. Our universities build technological or humanistic specialists in one particular discipline, and the problems of the world today cannot be solved by only one discipline at a time. The classic academic educational system does not provide much help on how to tackle the problems of our world on the basis of a systemic interdisciplinary approach.
In fact, the necessity of the hard-academic curriculum keeps our graduate students, the world leaders of tomorrow, away from the values of ethics, art, music, poetry and personal introspection. This is so for students of science but also for the humanity students, with the danger of creating leaders who are not sensitive enough to these values and may be then dry from the personal point of view. Of course, there are degrees in all that and exceptions, but one valid generalization is that we are tendentiously witnessing –you use an expression dear to Einstein- a “science without soul”, namely a technical, economic and political development deprived of ethical and spiritual values. Spirituality, meaning by that the values related to inner growth and to the implementation of ecological, ethical and religious principles, is generally missing in our academic education system. And if one would rate our present leaders in terms of parameters such as wisdom, tolerance for the strangers, sincerity, honesty, spirituality, well, the outcome would not be very positive.
The Cortona-week experiment
Thus, one could say that one general problems faced in general by our world is the lack of institutions capable of forging good leaders, those namely endowed with the proper equilibrium between an interdisciplinary scientific/technical professionality and the ethical/spiritual values.
Some academic institutions have been trying to implement interdisciplinary courses, offering for example classes of philosophy or art to science graduate students- a system which, I believe, does not work properly. If I look at my own former graduate students, immersed in their experimental work with all the strength of their life force- and thinking then to interrupt their day experiment in the middle, to tell them, now stop the reaction and go to a philosophy lecture… Actually they would tendentiously even hate something like that.
The “solution” is not to insert additional lectures in the already intense working week of motivated students. The possible solution is instead to provide them with a summer camp, an apparent holiday place, which is instead a retreat –not a spiritual retreat in a strict sense, but at least one intense week of interdisciplinary work with charismatic teachers and colleagues of all other disciplines.
There is an important reference point to that. This is given by the by now relatively well-known “Cortona-week” by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, Switzerland, the ETHZ, and initiated in the far 1985 by prof. Pier Luigi Luisi at that time professor of macromolecular chemistry at the ETHZ. Since then, the Cortona-week has been held yearly in the first part of September, hosting ca. one hundred graduate students at a time. Cortona is a beautiful, lovely Etruscan city in Toscana, close to Assisi, Florence- in a beautiful renaissance environment purposely far away from the college campus. Mostly Swiss and European graduate students were participating, but occasionally the experiment has been extended internationally, for example for American students (a week supported by the Fetzer Institute, see www.cortonaweek.it and in Hyderabad, India, see www.cortona-india.org, both with the general title “Science and Spirituality”. .
The structure of the meeting
As already mentioned, the program started in 1985, is considered at the European level as the best example of interdisciplinary study program, and has interested until now over the last 20 years a few thousand graduate students in the sciences and humanities, who reportedly had a quite positive and lasting experience for their professional career and life.
As the story goes, prof. Luisi had this idea since long time, but it was not possible for several years to find the financial support –not from the ETHZ, nor from the Swiss banks or he large chemical enterprises. Fortunately, Luisi met with the Swiss entrepreneur Branco Weiss, (a quite interesting and exceptional person himself) who promptly accepted the project (being himself on the same wavelength) and gave Luisi a blank check of 70,000 Swiss Francs to start Cortona 1. So, the story started. Luisi lead the Cortona-week for the first 30 years, leaving then the direction to younger ETHZ colleagues.
The meeting lasts one entire week, partial participation is not allowed, including the teachers. It is a retreat, this should be underlined, meaning not a simple conference of the type “talk and run away. The main target here are graduate students as well as young researchers in the sciences and humanities, as well as young managers, as those who automatically will be our leaders of tomorrow.
There is at the meeting an environment that honors the full range of both human experience and intellectual analysis. Creative thinkers are invited to lead the participants in a week-long exploration of the questions which lie at the heart of the dialogue between technological and economic progress from one hand, and humanity, ethical and ecological /spiritual values from the other. Teachers in the past have been for example people like (only a few names are given here in random order) David Bohm, brother David Steindl Rast, Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, Alexander Lowen, Fritjof Capra, Marko Pogacnick, Cliff Saron, Lyn Margulis, Richard Ernst, Mani Bhaumik, Chiungliang Al Huang, Weiming Du, Richard Baker Roshi, , Michel Bitbol, Paul Davis, Elisabeth Lindsay, Hortensie Rejintens, Franco Bertossa, Anton Zeilinger, Joan Halifax…
The panelists/speakers are chosen by the organization committee and should be high level professionals (no watering of science, no new age superficialities) who also with their actual life would give examples of integration and holistic view. Occasionally the podium is given to the participants themselves, who would pose the questions to be discussed. As an example, see below a short list of item presented by American graduate students several years ago, in 2008:
• The power of science, the power of spirituality, or the way of science, the way of spirituality
• The mystery of order: is order immanent or transcendent?
• Neuroscience and the spiritual experience
• The quantum observer: Does mind matter?
• “Sacred Nature” paradigms – Is there purposefulness at the heart of nature?
• Human dignity and the new frontiers of science: What will it mean to be a human being in the 21st century and beyond?
Of course, it is not possible to give an exhaustive answer to such questions in a few days. But it is important to discuss them in full freedom and among quite different mentalities (at the last Cortona-India week there were as many as sixteen different countries). An important characteristic of the meeting is the large span of time devoted to the discussion among young people, usually done in the form of “break out” groups.
As exciting as the lecture are, still the most important characteristic of the Cortona- week is given by the “workshops”, which take the entire afternoon. This is based on the idea to implement experientially some of the ideas of holistic integration. There are workshops where you can do music, or meditation, or painting, theatre, poetry, singing - each group being guided by an accredited professional. The workshops are in parallel, each participant can freely choose but practically cannot follow more than two of them in the week, and the choice is part of the process-what is more needed for my life equilibrium? Some may discover the importance of meditation, some other may rediscover their forgotten passion and interest for music or poetry or theater.
The generous support of Branco Weiss (no strings attached) lasted 5 years, then he- who was also sitting in the advisory board of the ETHZ- energetically passed the ball to the ETHZ direction; and the school supported the Cortona-week for over 25 years, and it must be said, in honour of the ETHZ, that this has been the only school in the world to finance such an interdisciplinary, non-orthodox, residential summer school (more than 100 thousand dollars/year). Then, nobody understands precisely why, the ETHZ decided to interrupt the initiative with the September of 2017.
Several people did not like this decision. Since the main goal of the Cortona-week is the forging of a new class of world leaders, it is precisely in this period of relative darkness that there is more need than ever of something like that. And thus, in the same 2017 year, a non-profit Cortona-friends association was created, with the aim of continuing the work. The next week will take place not in Cortona, anymore, but in Todi, Umbria, Italy, a small renaissance city defined by an international panel as the most liveable city in the world (see www.cortonafriends.org). Everybody can join. The problem now is that it must be all self-financed. Not an impossible task, however.
One of the sentences you can read in the web site, is that just in a period of darkness, one should keep a little light living….