Century's big think-off

In 1904, scholars were upbeat about progress. In 1999, a similar group

To grasp what a difference a century of learning can make, hark back to St. Louis for the buoyant 1904 Universal Exposition. Its goal: to assess the progress of man since the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

Then fast-forward to earlier this month, when scholars in 24 fields gathered at the Library of Congress to consider "Frontiers for the Mind in the Twenty-First Century" - a conscious echo of the 1904 exposition. Participants were asked to evaluate the contributions of their field in the past century and speculate on key developments in the next. Their mood was far less sanguine.

For a college student contemplating a major, or an adult pondering the next step in a self-charted course of study, the views here are worth a closer look. One of the toughest questions to answer from inside a college catalog or outside a field of study is whether the subject is worth studying. Are scholars building on ideas or jargon?

In its first major symposium for its bicentennial in 2000, the Library of Congress takes on that question. It's the kind of sweeping subject you would expect from the only library in the world that still claims to encompass almost all of the world's knowledge.

"Perhaps only the ancient library of Alexandria and the British Museum - for a small period ... had the same aspiration," said Librarian of Congress James Billington.

At the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, scholars were likewise invited by the Library of Congress to look beyond their specialties to assess what their fields had contributed to learning in the 19th century - and what they were likely to contribute in the 20th.

Many of the 445 experts at St. Louis disappeared down the decades without a trace; while others, such as Max Weber, Jane Addams, and Woodrow Wilson, helped define the 20th century. Whole fields of knowledge such as "colonial administration," would soon disappear; while others, such as computer science, had yet to be born.

But nearly every speaker in 1904 expected progress.

One participant described the event as "charged with the restless energies of every phase of human activity." Another called on speakers to "bring to the world the too-much neglected idea of the unity of truth."

A century later, scholars report convergences in many fields, but sharp differences in the level of confidence practitioners had about their disciplines' futures.

Scholars in the sciences reported bold advances in understanding stars, atoms, and the human brain, while social scientists often were on the defensive, especially over failures to anticipate or account for key events such as the rise of fascism. At the same time, experts argued that technological and scientific advances were driving life on Earth past the point of sustainability.

"At the 20th century's end, a large and vocal number of scholars feel that ... science does not represent a cumulative rise of wisdom and certainty, but rather has revealed itself as the contriver of unparalleled forces of destruction, that affect every individual, the entire human ecosystem, and ... the very survival of life on this planet," says Jonathan Spence, a historian at Yale University.

It's not often that scholars confront each other's disciplines so directly. But in Washington, scholars raised questions that rarely get a public airing.

A view from the front:

*Cosmology: Modern telescopes have probed deeper into space, but until recently, such data were often available only to an elite. In the future, galaxy surveys and detailed maps of the sky will be on the Internet. "A far-larger community will be able to participate in exploring our cosmic habitat," says Martin Rees, Britain's astronomer royal. A concern: that poor teaching in high school is turning off young people's enthusiasm for science.

*Mathematics: The 20th century has been a "golden age" for mathematics, says Phillip Griffiths, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. It has produced powerful new partnerships between mathematics and other sciences. A concern: connecting with the public. The professional mathematician lives in a vacuum, "surrounded by people who ... declare with an odd sort of pride that they are mathematically illiterate."

*Genetics: It is now the intellectual field "most visible to the lay public," says Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research. Several experts described the Human Genome Project, which aims to read and interpret genes, as a technical problem sure to be solved in the next century. If so, it could redefine the social sciences. A concern: how and whether genetics should resist "the inevitable temptation to produce 'improved' human beings."

*Philosophy: "Our century has witnessed the disappearance, or withering away of political philosophy," says Pierre Manent, of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. Philosophy had no answer to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, or to the wave of new social sciences that followed them. But he insists that the sciences alone can't solve the problem of the disenchantment of the world. "Modern science exhibits a singular trait: It is necessarily unfinished, it can never be completed."

*Religion and the state: Speakers representing Roman Catholicism and Islam predicted that the influence of modern nation-states will decline, and that dialogue among religions will become more important than dialogue between church and state. "Among the dialogues, that between Christians and Muslims promises to be the most significant for the future of the human race," said Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago.

*Musicology: Use of technologies such as the investigation of manuscript alterations through infrared photography is opening up new fields. But students today have far less direct experience of music than their counterparts a century ago. "It is a sad commentary ... that so many students of musicology and even teachers are unable to tell something as simple as the key or tonality of a passage," says Charles Rosen, a pianist on the faculty of the State University of New York, Stony Brook. "The present state of the philosophy of teaching music today is a sort of anarchy...."

*For a cybercast of the meeting: lcweb.loc.gov/today/ For talk excerpts: www.loc.gov/bicentennial

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