Laura Rediehs, associate professor of philosophy

What’s New is Old Again

Deborah Dudley

To help us excogitate further on innovation in the liberal arts context, we turned to the humanities, and asked Laura Rediehs, associate professor of philosophy, to put it into perspective.

“I believe that higher education needs to be both rooted in the past—have a deep and detailed understanding of the past—but always be looking to how the world is changing and adapting itself to the present,” Rediehs says. “A lot of that requires recasting how we actually do education from moment to moment: what we have students read, what we have them do to develop their thinking. Innovation in my own view would be the necessary changes to effectively adapt to our ever-changing world.”

Rediehs points out that there is an assumption that new is always better and more valuable, and innovation is something that we are constantly chasing but is something that also presents conflicts.

“Innovation just for the sake of innovation, just to say, ‘hey, look we are doing something new’ can be empty, it can be hollow,” she says. “On the surface, it can be kind of fun because we are curious creatures, who like the new.” But she also points out, that the new can be a regression instead of a progression.  

Technology is an interesting example for Rediehs. 

“It is really fun to connect to information and connect to other people, and it is also fun to find ways to use new technologies creatively in our teaching,” she says. “There are exciting things that we can have students do now that incorporate new media, but it does have a dark side as well.”  

“When people become completely anonymous online, they can be absolutely brutal to each other in ways that we are not used to dealing with,” she says which she believes is one of the contributors to the divisiveness people are experiencing in this country today. 

Early on, there was a belief that the Internet and digital media would unite the world because people would be able to understand each other better and communicate better and, as Redeihs says, “peace, love, and understanding would just grow naturally from that.”

However, much of the technology has resulted in a silo effect: people dividing into communities where they only get information in a specific feedback loop, which only increases the polarization. Rediehs admits that “While there is a bright side to these technologies, we have to catch up ethically to the dark side as well, acknowledge it, and innovate some strategies for how to deal with it more effectively to mitigate these adverse effects.”

“For it to be valuable, innovation needs to be accompanied by reflection on whether the innovations that we are adopting are genuinely helpful. As I think about our changing world, other big problems that catch my attention are issues related to climate change. There are demands placed on us to rethink how we live our lives, and innovation is needed. When it is presented as attractive, it can help motivate people to make changes and help us live more sustainably in our natural environment.”

For examples of creating innovative thinking through mining the ideas of the past, Rediehs points to peace studies programs, which are relatively new and rare on college campuses. She finds that when students study issues of non-violent conflict resolution, they are amazed that they haven’t been studying this since kindergarten because conflict is something they navigate in the daily lives. “There have been discussions about conflict and peace versus war throughout recorded human history,” says Rediehs. “I think there is a lot of value in looking back at old ideas that might be newly applicable.” 

On a larger scale, addressing terrorism and global conflict and the changing nature of war are critical to environmental, social, political and economic stability in the world. Rediehs believes, “We need innovation in education to address the big issues, but that innovation in part can be to draw on ancient wisdom and recast it and teach it in news ways and new forms that people can more readily understand.” She adds, “A lot of the ancient wisdom is tried and true, very old and well-tested, and yet it is new in people’s eyes and considered innovative.”

In general, Rediehs believes that “innovation,” the word, has a positive connotation of change that is deliberate, good or useful, and involving creativity in some way. 

“I think there is also a hope when you say something is innovative, there is a hope that it is the kind of thing that can evolve to become a lasting change,” she says. “And then there are the people who say there is nothing new under the sun. Even technologies, which in a lot of ways are new, are just allowing us to do things that we have always done: communicate, interact, look up information.”  She also recognizes that innovation is ephemeral, only lasting so long, before it is adopted, modified and becomes the way old ways of doing things. Some may become ideas that are lost to time, and then found, recast, and taught in new ways to new students who will find them innovative once again. 

Laura Rediehs is an associate professor of philosophy whose research involves the problem of incommensurability of paradigms, both as a problem studied within the philosophy of science, and as a problem addressed by theories of non-violent conflict resolution. She has authored numerous essays including “Thoughts Toward Healing a Divided World,” “From Dehumanization to Rehumanization,” and “Economics Has Replaced Ethics.”