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Existential Intimacy of Learning: A Noetic Turn from STEM

STEM Education:

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses dominate the academy, valuing technical training over broad based learning. While its scientific and technological lit eracy provides some skills essential to employment, STEM’s tech savvy and quantitative focus undervalues imagination, separates perception from cognition, narrows intuitive awareness, and validates nature’s domination. Its grand narratives encourage universal generalizations and unrealistic taxonomies.
STEM arises from a theology of materialism. STEM enshrines logic and calculation; it idolizes objectivity. Privileging exteriority over interiority, it projects a flatland view of reality. Its dominant modes of knowing are scientific materialism and positivism. What begins in our elementary and middle schools on a personal level as an instrumentation of reason that narrows and routinizes thinking ends up on the socio-cultural level as a mechanization of life, shackling cognitive freedom. Most people who are focused on obtaining essential material goals necessary for a livelihood in our society believe that training in the arts and literature is superfluous.

As such, we witness today an imbalance in the academy injurious to one’s integral hu manity. We stand at a decisive crossroad and must decide whether we shall continue to support narrow, piece-meal growth over human wholeness. The analytical STEM disciplines of higher education with their codified procedures do not address full human development.
STEM knowledge by itself leads to a narrow view of knowledge and life as wholly rational, controllable, and objective. Higher education desperately needs a pluralistic conception of what constitutes intelligent thought and behavior that joins analytical reason with creative, hands-on engagement with art making to derive more accurate models of mind and reality (Rojcewicz). To that end, I offer Noetic Education as a constructive postmodern critique of higher education’s hyper-rational emphasis as displayed in STEM-heavy curricula. Its holistic, integral approach sees humanity and the earth not as a collection of isolated facts, but a dynamic relational web. It calls us to a performance of our mutual connections of the coevolutionary body of life in what Theodore Roszak titled “the voice of the world.”


Noetic Education:

The purpose of Noetic education is to enhance the capacities of the mind-body, transforming the self through a release of the reconstructive imagination that allows us deep entry into unfamiliar turns of mind. A noetic approach originated in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl’s so-called transcendental turn, as developed in his lecture courses “Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge” (1906/07) and “Logic and General Theory of Science” (1917/18). “Noetic” comes from the Greek word nous, meaning all encompassing ways of knowing, discursive and non-discursive (James). Noetic education values learning through a wide repertoire of modalities, including the imaginal, aesthetic, and transcendent. Its vision of the interdependence of mind/body/spirit and humanity with the earth emphasizes holistic, cooperative, and relational learning.
If we are to foster human wholeness and not fail people in the healthy formation of their lives, definitions of being smart must move beyond a strict definition of reason as but a tool of quantitative efficiency. We must understand learning not only in terms of what can be assessed by tests of strict quantification. Noetic education seeks inter-sensory thinking and fully animated thought, glimpsed in disruptive moments of Aha!

Noetic Education through the arts and sciences makes available to the mind-body more than logic, not less, integrating bodily perceptions with rational thought. Noetic education pursues the intimate engagement of myth, symbol, art, and religious systems of knowledge with the calculation and logic of modern empirical science. I find inspiration here from Jung’s four functions of the psyche, the convocation of the “structures of consciousness” discussed by Jean Gebser and later re-conceived by Ken Wilber and William Irwin Thompson – i.e., the archaic, magical, mythical, mental, and integral. Mythopoetic thinking in images allows one to see all experiences as both literal and metaphoric, subject to interpretation and change.
Phillip Wheelwright drives home the point, “The power of metaphor is visible when new meanings and values emerge from previously ungrouped combinations of elements, and we see more deeply into the real order of things.”

Metaphor drives beyond the literal, liberating us from repressive cognitive styles. Mythic thinking is direct critical thinking in images and metaphors that provide perspectives toward life, capable of transforming mere events into meaningful experience of soul. Literate “readers” of images are empowered to enter the designs and expressions of the peak achievements of knowledge along the human adventure. Without this rational and aesthetic capacity to grasp images, we are orphaned from the rich conversation of humanity begun in primeval times. This union of objective and subjective knowledge is best achieved through the arts and sciences that include art making and aesthetic literacy.


Noetic Literacy through the Arts:

Creative and innovative people in all fields demonstrate a broad-based literacy beyond written language and numbers, joining discursive and non-discursive knowing, as well as abstract and embodied learning. There is something inherent in the images of each art’s “language” that prepare the mind for sophisticated cognitive activities, conceptual and perceptual. Image making is the mind’s fundamental means of knowing; no cognitive operation is more central to consciousness (Hannaford). New learning results when lived experiences provide, confirm or modify images of oneself and the world. Not simply metaphors for ideas, images relate to how people acquire, organize, retrieve, and use information.
Accomplished scientists, like artists everywhere, note the importance of imagery in their most significant work. Jerome Friedman knew scientific “Reasoning is constructed with movable images, just as poetry is.” By imagining he could travel with a beam of light at 186,000 miles per second, Albert Einstein acknowledged the key role kinesthetic and visual images played in his Gedanken thought experiment. A vision of molecules forming the archetypal image of the uroboros snake led to Frederick von Kekule’s discovery of the six–carbon benzene ring. Creativity and innovation often result from the generative union of imagination and reason, inviting debate about the role of visualization in creativity and innovation and STEM limitations.

Whether we look to art or science, it is clear that broad based knowledge rests upon interrelationships between distinct clusters of multi-sensory images in the mind. The best artists and scientists integrate intuition and unconscious processes with mental skills, including accurate observation, spatial and kinesthetic thought, identification of key parts of a complex whole, and recognition or invention of patterns governing systems (Root-Bernstein). In the present indeterminate world where predictability seems impossible, Noetic literacy helps reveal subtle states of order challenging chaos and reducing cultural entropy. When STEM-based elements fuse with the arts and humanities through complex, creative work, people achieve an existential intimacy of learning with their all-sided humanity.



Hannaford, Carla. 1995. Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not Only ion Your Head. Arlington,
VA: Great Ocean Publishers.
James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience, A Study of Human Nature.
1902. New York: Collier Books. Reprinted 1961.
Rojcewicz, Peter M. 2001 NoeticLearning through Music and the Arts: a View from the
Conservatory, Current Musicology,No. 65: 97-115.
Root-Bernstein, Robert S. 1997. “For the Sake of Science, the Arts Deserve Support.” The
Chronicle of Higher Education (July 11): B6
Wheelwright, Philip. 1967. Metaphor and Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Source: ACADEMIA Letters, Peter M. Rojcewicz, Pacifica Graduate Institute