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Dean Blount's Blog
  As the world continues to expand, universities must embrace their unique positioning—as institutions committed to fostering independent, complex thought amidst ever-growing, fast-moving, interconnected herds.
 

As the world continues to expand, universities must embrace their unique positioning—as institutions committed to fostering independent, complex thought amidst ever-growing, fast-moving, interconnected herds.

   

7 Billion Plus One
November 8, 2011

The world population hit 7 billion last week. There are ever more people, many of whom are living longer lives. Yet, ironically, it often feels like we have less and less time.

The Saturated, Always Behind Self

No matter how much we read, no matter how many conversations we engage in, it’s easy to always feel a bit behind. Perhaps that is one of the greatest pathologies of modern life. I remember when I first read the book The Saturated Self by Kenneth Gergen almost 20 years ago. And that was before I had an iPhone, exposure to Twitter feeds, 24-hour news updates and access to a wide of array of YouTube videos.

Gergen identified the emerging problem of the overexposed self at a time when population figures—and interconnectivity through various media—were growing. He reasoned that humans were exposed to a much wider array of relationships than ever before. As a result, our inner experience was bound to change. Humans would necessarily have to transition from experiencing a self with an identity independent of its relationships to a self seen only through its relatedness to others. When I first read this, I couldn’t imagine how that would happen.  Now, when I watch how my children and their friends publicly narrate their lives on Facebook each day, I can’t help but wonder if that hasn’t already happened in just a generation.

Getting Away from Pack

At the same time, I wonder if this growing sense of connectedness is indeed new or perhaps very old to humans. Are we simply reigniting at a much grander scale an earlier stage in our development, a stage when we lived in highly interconnected hunter-gatherer communities and hadn’t yet imagined the idea of an independent self?  When I watch some of the things that have gone wrong in our markets and large institutions over the last 10 years, it seems that herd instincts are alive and well in humans, despite how far we’ve evolved.

As an academic, I believe so deeply in the power of independent thought, in the power of stepping away from the mainstream of human events to think deeply and differently. But I recognize that it’s getting harder and harder to do.

In my mind, those of us at universities need to keep reminding ourselves and the world why higher education is so precious and relevant. It’s precisely because it is designed to be set apart—to foster complex thinking, deep inquiry, and well-reasoned arguments that consider and weigh alternative points of view. This is not thinking that emerges when responding to market demands, pack popularity, or pressure to maximize “clicks.” As the world continues to expand and inter-connect, universities must embrace their unique positioning—as institutions committed to fostering independent, complex thought amidst ever-growing, fast-moving, interconnected herds.

I welcome your comments, feedback and ideas at sallyblount@kellogg.northwestern.edu

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