Students should live up to the College’s impressive liberal arts title

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November 12, 2010

1:27 AM

Last week Marco Steinberg, a former Harvard University architecture professor, wrote a thought provoking article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The column, “The Fate of Universities Lies in the Bus Schedule,” offered a critique of the current disciplinary focus of major universities.

Steinberg currently works at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, where he and his colleagues attempt to address problems through “strategic design.” He looks at issues usually contemplated by politicians or economists through the eyes of an architect, attempting to find structures, patterns and new ways to conceptualize social issues. However, the hiring process has made it clear that university graduates are not being trained for this sort of trans-disciplinary investigation.

Steinberg argues that universities are producing graduates who are ill-equipped to tackle important national and international problems including environmental destruction, healthcare, education and social services for the elderly. These issues are particularly challenging because they transcend disciplinary boundaries. Yet, in most cases, universities still adhere to a strict serration of different disciplines. Graduates can only address certain aspects of major issues because their training does not allow for a holistic view of the situation — this is what Steinberg refers to as the “architecture” of the problem.

At the College of William and Mary, we pride ourselves on our liberal arts curriculum ,which encourages students to take a broad range of classes, but is this enough to engender the sort of trans-disciplinary thinking that Steinberg believes is necessary for confronting the pressing international problems?

Our General Education Requirements — the dreaded GERs — do force students to take courses outside of their disciplines. While this strategy succeeds in its goal of exposing students to different ways of thinking, one or two introductory level courses in another discipline are not enough to prepare a student to look at issues from multiple perspectives. Furthermore, each discipline generally applies its methods to different issues and concerns or different parts of a larger issue. This reduces the chance that the different perspectives will inform each other.

During my sophomore year, I, an international relations major, enrolled in an IR class team-taught by three professors — one each from the government, history and economics departments. The idea of the class was that for each topic of the course, all three professors would give a lecture using the tools of his or her discipline to provide insight. While each lecture was individually interesting and provided insight into the broader topic, there was very little interaction between disciplines. Each professor discussed events and ideas relevant to his or her discipline, and as a result there was no unification theories and conclusions across disciplines. In any discussion, the professors always seemed to talk past each other. If this was the case with three relatively similar social science or humanities disciplines, how can students hope to apply the tools of mathematics, design or natural sciences to novel problems?

It certainly does seem that universities, including our own, struggle when it comes to educating students to look at holistically complex problems. The reasons for this — although partly derived from institutional structure — arise in large part from our approach to knowledge. When we separate and divide knowledge before it is taught, it is quite hard to integrate it again. There is no easy solution. Disciplines exist for a reason, but students — and professors — should consider that the challenges we face today will not be solved by complete knowledge of one discipline, but by well-integrated knowledge of a wide range of theoretical approaches.

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