Synthesis and Integration: The New State of Higher Education

It is difficult to say if there has been a rise in the calls for “interdisciplinarity” of late or if one’s sensitivity to the constant stream of discourse simply waxes and wanes and one perceives a rise where there is simply constancy. The question of reality versus perception arose in a series of articles recently in _The Chronicle of Higher Education_.

A little over a month ago, I found myself reading one of the “Old School, New School” posts which are the product of a collaboration between Michael Brown and Mary Churchill, who, to my mind, often appear to be talking past each other in some literary version of intertwined monologues. Their most recent intertwining focused on what they argue is the “[need to synthesize the sciences and the humanities][1],” which I think Brown sums up best with the observation that:

> Teaching either the humanities or the sciences from the point of view of their technical aspects tends to leave too many students behind in their appreciation of what those fields study, how they approach their material, and what limits might exist to communicating the results of research.

Not enough, they agree, is done to distinguish between *what any educated person should know* and *what a professional in the field needs to know to advance the domain*. Brown isn’t quite sure what to do, Churchill sees opportunities in those fields which, by their “interdisciplinarity,” combine the sciences and the humanities. The two fields she cites are digital media and global studies. Her definition of “digital media” is to point to MIT’s Media Lab. (I don’t think she realizes that “digital media” in a lot of places tends to focus people’s attention on the “media” part of the term, and thus it tends to be heavily inflected by a focus on the entertainment industry.)

Leaving aside such matters as where to look for interdisciplinarity that makes a difference, another Chronicle posting appeared two days ago and its four authors called for a [Blue for a Better Business Curriculum][2]. Its authors acknowledge that, given the high costs of higher education and the riskiness of the current job market (this seems an emergent consensus, or at least conventional wisdom, that at least has a perceptual truth since, or because, it is repeated so often), the business major is not going away any time soon. The problem is, the business major has moved too far away from the general curriculum of the university and looks more like a junior MBA than a liberal arts education. The recently published and much ballyhooed _Academically Adrift_ apparently documents that business majors “spend less time preparing for classes than their peers in other disciplines and show less proficiency on tests that assess their writing and thinking abilities.”

Their solution? A double helix curriculum that “integrates” the sciences and humanities into the business curriculum “to provide an understanding of the other institutional sectors that business depends on.” Otherwise:

> In the absence of this kind of integrative consciousness, undergraduate business education is often narrow. By this we mean that it provides too little depth of understanding about or flexibility of perspective on the tools and concepts employed in business disciplines. This leads students to view these conceptual tools not as hypotheses to be employed for specific purposes but as simple and complete descriptions of reality. This limits students’ development as thinkers—and in doing so threatens to undermine the creative thinking that feeds innovation.

Why is all this interesting? Because there seems to be a steady call that at least various dimensions of higher education are not working as well as they should be — some would probably use the term “broken.” On the one hand, as our first set of authors point out, the traditional core of the university curriculum has become too focused on the specializations that one must engage in order to do research, and thus have dropped their focus on a providing a more generalist education that is useful to those outside their field. On the other hand, the newer curricula in higher education — the professional schools in business, engineering, and education typically — have developed majors that themselves break away from the generalist paradigm.

To put it simply, everyone is really calling for a return to a generalist education — what is sometimes called, reverently, the “liberal arts” education — but with a difference. (Sorry fellow members of that old core, the new core is going to be different, and I think that’s going to be a “good thing.”) The new generalist education is not going to allow the sciences and the humanities to stand apart, neither from each other nor from the newer professional curricula. It’s going to require a greater amount of collaboration among faculty members, who are going to have to do some thinking about what it means to produce generalists — perhaps more thinking about education than we are accustomed to doing, but it’s going to be exciting because I also think it’s going to generate new ideas for research; it’s going to highlight areas of knowledge that we have forgotten to explore precisely because they lie at the interstices of domains.

I don’t know what the new core is going to look like. Most of these articles, and the many [others][3] I have seen lately, don’t seem to offer too many particulars. Perhaps one of the challenges, and opportunities, here is that the partiulars will need to be worked out locally. I certainly can imagine that the generalist that a university like me own needs to produce will be somewhat different than that produced by an adjacent university.


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