A World of Expanding Knowledge and Know-How

by Chip Edelsberg

This month’s reflection is different than most. It is more indicative of my personal beliefs and less a description of any specific Jim Joseph Foundation Board-sanctioned grantmaking strategy. My thoughts derive from observations and insights I want to share following two weeks of travel. During this time, I had the opportunity to step back from the day-to-day world of Jewish philanthropy and Jewish communal life. While away from the all-consuming flow of information that typifies the typical work day at the Foundation, it struck me how essential it is for the Jim Joseph Foundation to continue to endeavor to bring multiple perspectives of expertise to bear on all the Foundation’s philanthropy.

I begin with the obvious by noting that new areas of academic and interdisciplinary studies are emerging with increasing frequency. Just 30 years ago, for example, there were two graduate university programs for not-for-profit management; today, there are over 100 such degree granting programs. Interestingly, to my knowledge, there is only one doctoral program in the country in philanthropy – at Indiana University. I suspect there will be many more of these programs available to interested graduate students in the next few years.

More to the point, far apart from the fields in which the readers of this column work, one can find opportunities for advanced studies in such interdisciplinary fields as biomedical informatics, computational life science, conservation biology, enterprise systems engineering, science and technology, environmental philosophy, geoscience, interdisciplinary musicology, social ecology, and digital humanities.

My insight is this – as is probably apparent to you: the character of knowledge as disciplinary-based, discrete sets of concepts and facts buttressed by empirical findings is evolving. Indeed, the very nature of knowledge – what it is, how it is acquired and generated, and even where it is discovered – is undergoing transformation.

This means what for the Jim Joseph Foundation, you may ask? I reiterate my interest in looking favorably at individuals and organizations working in interdisciplinary ways:

In the area of Jewish day school teacher induction, I am grateful that the Jewish New Teacher Project (a Jim Joseph Foundation grantee) is “parented” by the New Teacher Center (NTC). NTC’s accomplished, award-winning CEO Ellen Moir has always looked to other fields and their approaches to induction for practices that might be applicable to teachers in schools.

There are numerous other examples that showcase interdisciplinary, strategic approaches. Hillel’s leadership team, for example, examines life stage development and community organizing literature in crafting strategic approaches for engaging college-age adults.

As another example, American Institutes for Research, the Parthenon Group, and Noel-Levitz provide technical assistance with multi-disciplinary expertise to HUC-JIR, JTS, and YU as part of the Jim Joseph Foundation $45 million Education Initiative. This expertise has yielded tremendous value to the grantees.

As I watch these multi-disciplinary approaches, I am also convinced that bringing learning technology specialists together with current network theory, organizational design thinking, social media, and not-for-profit finance experts to reimagine ways for Jewish day school intermediaries to flourish would be a purposeful activity.

These kinds of interactions frankly only scratch the surface of what I believe represents largely untapped potential to improve Jewish education philanthropic “know how.” I try not to idealize the benefits of interdisciplinary thinking, agreeing that:

  • ‘Interdisclplinarity’ should not be treated as a shibboleth or a sign of one’s advanced thinking. Neither is it an incantation that will magically solve our problems. Interdisciplinarity is simply a means. But to what end? Pragmatically put, toward the ends of greater insight and greater success at problem-solving. More fundamentally, however, interdisciplinarity is a means towards the end of preserving or achieving a good life in a complex, global, rapidly innovating society. (Robert Froderman, The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, p.xxxii)

Here we are in 2014 in a profoundly global, interconnected, networked universe. Indisputably, a new kind of collective intelligence is helping to inform and shape the world. Those creating and nurturing Wikipedia present a paradigmatic example of collective intelligence at work.

Surely, those of us involved in funding Jewish education would do well to consider how applications of crowd-sourced, interdisciplinary, and multiple intelligence-based thinking might lead to better performance in our philanthropy and grantees’ implementation of well-funded initiatives.

My recent brief respite from the structured routine of philanthropic decision-making at the Jim Joseph Foundation refreshed my awareness of the unprecedented production of knowledge that occurs all around us, all the time. I cite it here as an invitation to stakeholders in both Jewish philanthropy generally and those funding Jewish education in particular to aspire to boundary spanning understanding of knowledge. As a Jewish people, we are more likely to act collectively in intelligent ways if we intentionally access and integrate a broad array of ideas from diverse disciplines into our communal narrative. And philanthropists, I am hypothesizing, can elevate the programs and projects as well as the organizations and institutions they fund by relying on new sources of interdisciplinarity and burgeoning networks of novel thinkers.

As a postscript, I would add that back in the comfort of the Foundation office, I have had the opportunity to review sources that significantly influence how I think about the topic of a rapidly expanding universe of knowledge and its potential application to the work of philanthropy in support of Jewish education. Among the sources I find to be most informative are Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Future Perfect; Clay Shirkey’s Cognitive Surplus and Here Comes Everybody; The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki; Connecting to Change the World (a pre-publication copy I am reviewing of a forthcoming book) by Peter Plastrik, Madeline Taylor, and John Cleveland; The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity by Froderman et al; David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder; and chapters available on the internet from the soon to be published Collective Intelligence Handbook.

This last source in and of itself demonstrates the fundamentally changed nature of knowledge and how new interdisciplinary perspectives are altering its character. Authors of chapters in Collective Intelligence Handbook have posted their work and invited pre-publication comments from readers. The critiques offered from these multiple frames of reference representing diverse expertise will likely result in the authors making changes in their text as part of the final copy of Collective Intelligence Handbook.

As always, I both welcome and look forward to reading your comments on this column.

Chip Edelsberg is executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews in the United States. Established in 2006, the Jim Joseph Foundation has awarded more than $300 million in grants to engage, educate, and inspire young Jewish minds to discover the joy of living vibrant Jewish lives.

cross-posted on the Jim Joseph Foundation blog