The future of education: Interdisciplinary studies

| Staff Columnist
Becky Zhao | Student Life

Becky Zhao | Student Life

In recent years, the world has become interconnected. This has broad implications and effects across many fields, including such areas as energy, science and medicine—and, most pertinently, education. In the past, majors and areas of study were fairly clearly defined. English, mathematics, chemistry, history—all of these were clear-cut, established majors. But with more access to knowledge and the increasing interconnectedness of our world, complete understanding of these fields requires at least a working awareness of a wide variety of subjects. For instance, to fully analyze or comprehend a book, shouldn’t one understand the political and economic situation it was written in? Universities have been reconsidering how subjects are studied and applied based on the other disciplines that link into them.

Mark Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, wrote a New York Times op-ed piece discussing this needed trend. He took an extreme position, advocating the abolishment of traditional departments, replacing them with broad-based topics such as “Mind,” “Language” and “Water.” These would be “problem-focused programs,” designed to combat the obstacles of the tomorrow. The programs would draw significantly from such areas as the sciences, philosophy, religion and ethics. While this is a radical re-evaluation, Taylor nevertheless makes an excellent point: We live in an ever-changing world, and our education must keep up with it. Sticking with academic majors established a century ago at Harvard—which have not truly changed since—puts both undergraduates and graduate students at a disadvantage in the future. If they have not developed skills involving comparative analysis in the university setting, when will they learn them?

Consider the current energy situation, for example. Our reliance on oil will not last more than another 50-plus years, at which point we must have developed a feasible alternative in order to continue to live the way we do. When our oil runs out, we must have already “solved” the energy crisis and created a working network of alternative sources, be it wind, solar or something that has yet to be developed. It is not as simple as merely taking scientists around the world and putting them to work on a solution, however. Problems unrelated to hard science must be addressed: Who gets the majority of the energy? Who will bear the burden of producing this energy? If there is not enough power to sustain the entire world, how should it be divided?

These questions cannot be answered by science alone. A wide variety of people, such as ethicists, politicians, economists, theologians and businessmen, must be employed. Obviously, each person involved must have a broad base of knowledge in each of the relevant areas in order to fully comprehend the problem. After finishing their formal education, people’s ability to learn outside of their area of study sharply declines; therefore, such a comprehensive awareness must be acquired while still in college.

Wash. U. has made admirable strides in this direction, with programs like the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, philosophy-neuroscience-psychology, the American Culture Studies program and the International and Area Studies program. But like almost every college, the administration has yet to fully integrate our academic departments. Though I do not advocate the complete abolishment of majors as Dr. Taylor does, I suggest that the collegiate system be significantly altered. Rudimentary forms of these already exist at University of Chicago and Columbia University, in the form of the Common Core and the Core Curriculum, respectively. These structures exist to ensure that undergraduates have at least basic understanding of a wide variety of fields. It must be taken a step further, however, and efforts must be made to encourage students to view the fields as interrelated, rather than solitary. This is a must in order to ensure that graduates are fully prepared for the problems of the future.

  • http://www.jeromebauer.com Jerome Bauer

    PS to my comment above: before we jump on an “Interdisciplinary Studies” bandwagon, consider the phrase “neither fish nor fowl.” Consider also the meaning of the word, “Discipline.”

  • http://www.jeromebauer.com Jerome Bauer

    All this sounds great, but who will implement this, and how will it be implemented? From the bottom up, or from the top down? Will we replace one bureaucratic monstrosity, the Cluster System, with another, a Multiple Bubble system? I hope not. Let’s have an autonomous College and evening college. Let’s have Lecturer’s Policy reform, to provide a real career path, culminating in tenure, for teaching, community service, or publication of research, in any order of OUR preference.

    For an ongoing discussion of these issues, please see my Facebook Note, “Washington University Needs More Ethnic, Asian American, Oriental/Philological, and Civilizational Studies”: http://www.facebook.com/notes/jerome-bauer/washington-university-needs-more-ethnic-asian-american-orientalphilological-and-/134122419828