From the Castle

Keeping Up

James Smithson
Smithson: Using “diffusion” as an analogy for education? National Portrait Gallery, SI

We can easily understand the first part of Smithsonian benefactor James Smithson's mandate, "...the increase and diffusion of knowledge," as an imperative to do original research; less clear is the second part. In my online dictionary, the first definition of "diffusion" is the movement of particles from an area of higher concentration to one of lower concentration in a given volume of liquid or gas. Secondary definitions relate to the spread of cultural ideas or the process by which a new idea becomes accepted.

Mr. Smithson was a noted chemist. Could he have been using "diffusion" as an analogy for education? Smithson learned chemistry, then a new field, by studying at Oxford University with faculty trained at the University of Edinburgh, renowned for early chemistry studies. He probably knew that many of his contemporaries used the "increase and diffusion" phrase to mean, as historian Pamela Henson explains, that "research carried with it a commitment beyond the individual, that its results should be shared, enabling knowledge to ameliorate human conditions, advance societies and cross national boundaries."

The Smithsonian Institution has long appreciated its educational role, reflected in its many program initiatives, some of which are explained on our Web site, That role now becomes especially challenging as we work to keep up with rapid changes in society and remain relevant. Information is increasing at an exponential rate, and students and others acquire it in ways significantly different from the past—witness blogs, texting, MySpace, YouTube, multiplayer online role-playing games, iPods, podcasts, Web cams and so on.

A few years ago I chaired an initiative for the National Academy of Engineering, "The Engineer of 2020." Engineers, business and academic leaders discussed the skills—in addition to those in technology and engineering—needed in our changing world: creative thinking, adaptive planning and an appreciation of the global economy and global culture. Nobel laureate and physicist Leon Lederman has explained that we need to educate students to adapt to changes driven by new technology, to work with others across borders, to communicate complex ideas effectively to a variety of audiences and, perhaps most important, to find "measured yet creative solutions to problems which are today unimaginable."

This new educational model is good news for the Institution because our purview spans science, history, natural history and art. With our interdisciplinary lens we are well positioned to consider new means of communication and more collaborative learning styles. One of my early initiatives will be to engage my new colleagues to examine how we can best use the Institution's remarkable assets to better serve society. We will work together to broaden our understanding of the possibilities ahead.

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