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Winter 2000


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Unsequestered Spirits

Photo: Khan and Scott

Sufi leader Pir Vilayat Khan at Memorial Hall in conversation with Chancellor David Scott. (T. Frare photo)

“I think, therefore I am.” It would be hard to find a sentence that more crisply defines the limits of modern education. When René Descartes wrote those words in 1637, he elevated the cerebral cortex above all.

     The remaining parts of the human being – his heart, her soul, their intuition and physical vigor – could be taken or left, and preferably left outside of the academy. In a forum held last November in Memorial Hall, two leaders wondered aloud whether it’s time to invite them back in.

     Chancellor David Scott, a nuclear physicist, and Pir Vilayat Khan, the eighty-three-year-old leader of the World Sufi order, sat in affably-angled armchairs and, in a thrilling hour of swapping Really Big Ideas, all but called on every department at UMass to start integrating new paradigms of science and spirituality into their courses. “Eighty-three percent of Americans believe in a god of some sort,” Scott reflected in the presence of a standing-room-only audience. “Yet we’ve managed to excise that fact entirely from the educational curriculum in this country. How can we live with that?”

     While to outward appearances an unlikely meeting, these two minds clearly vibrate to the same tuning fork. Both are Oxford-trained. A native of a small and isolated island off the northeast coast of Scotland, Scott originally came to the United States to work at the Lawrence Berkeley cyclotron laboratory; his work in nuclear collisions brought him international recognition as a scientist. Pir Vilayat’s academic background is in psychology, which he studied at the Sorbonne as well as in England. French-reared by English and Indian parents, he spends most of his time today in France and Seattle, as the global head of the mystical, ecstatic branch of Islam known as Sufism.

     During the last three centuries, the two men agreed, science has illuminated much of the workings of our world – the “how” of things. It has largely ignored the “why.” Science studies “just the surface of this great wholeness,” said Pir Vilayat. Quantum physics now suggests a unity of matter, mind, and energy; breakthroughs in medicine and genetics point to a unity of mind, body and spirit. A biospheric perspective demonstrates how exquisitely the web of life is interconnected. But higher education has not kept pace with the paradigmatic shifts that are rocking the new frontiers, said Scott.

     “Public higher education has conveniently hidden behind a rigorous constitutional separation of church and state,” suggested the chancellor. “We’ve sequestered the discussion of the spiritual into ‘religious studies’ departments, which has freed the other disciplines – physics, chemistry, electrical engineering, even nursing – from having to touch that dimension at all.”

     Scott said he would like to see teaching at UMass dare to acknowledge the elusive mystery of life. “If I had my way, I would have us do away with GenEd courses and specialized learning in favor of integrating spiritual ideas about the humanities and sciences into every one of the majors,” said Scott. “That would produce a totally different type of person coming out of this institution.”

– Ali Crolius


Upcoming and related

     A three-day conference on spirituality in the workplace, sponsored by a school not automatically associated with the numinous: the Isenberg School of Management. “Going Public with Spirituality in Work and Higher Education,” is open to the public and runs June 4-6. The $300 registration fee ($150 for full-time students) includes meals. For more information call Karen Manz at 413.577.3355 or go to the conference website at www.umass.edu/spiritual_conf/


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