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University education needs to be more holistic and interdisciplinary to enable students to better relate their book study to the world around them.

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Intellectual Rigidity

March 28th, 2013

by The Interdisciplinary Research Society UEA

Would changes to academic structures help towards solving complex societal problems?

In the summer of 1972 a very charming and very British scientist Jim Lovelock, was out walking in the British countryside of the Sussex Downs. Recalling the many walks with his father through the area as a child, Lovelock suddenly became aware of a quilt-like haze that gripped the picturesque landscape; a feature which he recognized as new and somehow unnatural. Helped by his family, and using self-assembled instruments, Jim did something which is almost impossible in modern day institutional science; he simply, and freely, followed his instinct to find out more.

15 years later over 90 countries from all around the world agreed upon the Montreal protocol; a treaty to eliminate chemicals which deplete the ozone layer. Although others were involved, Jim Lovelock’s absolutely crucial observations and measurements; ones which would have most likely been missed by the larger scientific community formany more years, highlights the absolute significance of organic, rigidity-free investigation by an individual with eyes wide open. An individual who relishes dipping his mind into any given problem and who whole-heartedly embraces a holistic approach to his much loved work; science.

Much of today’s science is highly specialized, and with good reason. Areas such as medicine and the earth’s climate for example, require very dedicated academics who now use powerful computers; computers which only exist because of specialist engineers. With over 1.4 million pieces of academic work published in 2009 alone, it's understandable that this colossal amount of information now needs to be organized through separate departments of expertise.

Yet this compartmentalization of knowledge has become increasingly criticized in recent decades, with a view that this specialization actively stifles the development of holistic and organic academics; a negative effect which Lovelock himself has openly commented against. 

In 2009 Mark Taylor, Chair of Columbia University’s Religion Department, spoke out against this academic specialisation in a high-profile article published in the New York Times, entitled 'The end of university as we know it'. He attacked the general academic community, contending that it had become a “mass production university model” leading to “separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever increasing specialization”. 

Going further, Taylor said that academics are trustees of “limited knowledge which all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems”. The article received nearly 500 comments in the first few hours of its online publication, causing the thread to be closed. Taylor’s view characterised academic departments as segregated bubbles, rigid with lack of interest for anything but their own fields of intellectual investigation. 

Recent national surveys have seen a majority of academics generally agreeing that higher degrees of knowledge integration are needed whilst also conceding that students need a ‘solid’ grounding in their chosen studies. After all, there has to be a certain level of expertise gained in order for it to then be shared. This process of generating experts who are also able to engage more laterally across academic fields presents one of the biggest challenges in contemporary academia. 

America’s prestigious Stanford University, recently completed the ‘Stanford challenge’; a five year campaign raising $6.2bn to address the need to “reduce traditional disciplinary and organizational boundaries” with a hope to “seek solutions to global problems and educate leaders for a more complex world.” As the price tag shows, this more complex integration of universities resources is very costly. Even if funding is secured, successful knowledge integration is far from guaranteed. 

In 2010 Kings College London and the University of Warwick jointly conducted a fundamental review of their institutions’ approaches to early degree level education. The report also included a global survey of over 20 high-profile universities from six different continents, all of which show innovative approaches to reorganizing university education, including the need for more integration between departments. The report concludes:

“Overall, we found that curriculum change is not something to be undertaken lightly. No matter how carefully handled, it is always a contentious issue and takes considerable time and resources to achieve......... changing structures of institutions to do so is long-winded and fraught with difficulties.” 

All the different challenges that the 21st century presents to its society seem to have this high level of difficulty in common. Many of the difficulties lie in the fact that as humans we suffer from a tendency to stay in our comfort zone – rigid to change. We tend to like doing what we know we like doing. The public university model, like our industrial model, has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. While the campaign for curbing our emissions is no doubt a high priority, the fact that our education system; the one which lies at the heart of our problem solving capacity, suffers from considerable rigidity, should be cause for alarm. 

How much worse might our position now be if Jim Lovelock hadn’t followed up his observations back in 1972? Would other scientists who were heavily constrained by grant proposals, industry needs, institutional needs, etc  really have uncovered the same phenomena?  What if the harmful effects of CFC’s and a significantly larger hole in the ozone layer had been discovered ten years later? Would our problems of accelerated climate change have been replaced by something much worse?    

The lack of holistic considerations by education or by any institution, in light of the global problems now known to be real can only be a dangerous thing. Take for example the newly discovered material Graphene. The ‘miracle material’ which experts in the field contend could start a new industrial revolution, has caused a global surge for ownership with individual companies like Samsung filing an impressive 400 out of the overall 4000 patents currently held by multiple countries on the material. Will this global race of vested interest really allow for the time to holistically determine the true value of such a material? 

Of course, this is where business comes into the picture. The relationship between business, science and even educational institutions in general, is not particularly news worthy. Also, the relationship between academic institutions and job markets looks set to remain the same, creating an unavoidable degree of rigidity through vested interests. 

Nevertheless, with the importance of integrated knowledge being fully recognised by academics, and with the headache that goes along with the price tag and resources needed to officially achieve this, it’s clear that something else needs to be done. Perhaps this is best initiated from the ground upwards. Are the students of specialised academic institutions even aware of their own increasing specialisation? 

It’s clear to see on a daily basis that the same rigidity of interest is being inadvertently instilled in students, very high percentages of whom care much more about their grades than the actual substance of their studies. Traces of this effect could be argued to reach further back in the educational structure. In any case, the repeated question of “will this be in the test?” dominates student discussion and drowns out the amazing, once-in-a-lifetime potential that resonates throughout almost every university corridor. 

Whilst some students do make good use of the entirety of the university environment, there are still many more who do not understand the multilayered dynamics and opportunities a university provides. All in all, the students have less chance of engaging their skills in wider academic and societal contexts when they and their academic intuitions are surrounded by business and employment markets requiring specialized graduates. Additional support structures are needed to help both the students and their universities to achieve their full potential as problem solvers and as problem identifiers. 

The Interdisciplinary Research Society at the University of East Anglia recently formed in September of 2012. The societies goal is to provide a multidisciplinary environment where students are encouraged todiscuss broad academic topics. Many of the discussions are based around small research projects in the form of real problems posed by local organizations or research centres.

The ultimate goal is to provide an additional university structure that officially rewards students for making useful connections between theirs and other academic interests. The society encourages its members to think and utilize their skills organically, sharing ideas and information in a way that promotes intellectual independence and a genuine passion for knowledge through importance. The society makes use of existing university support structures in completely new ways. 

This has mainly been possible due to the University of East Anglia’s support for interdisciplinarity, demonstrated through its world famous Environmental Sciences department. Upon receiving an OBE for his services to environmental science and policy since the 1990’s, Professor Ian Bateman commented:

“I am particularly proud to be a member of  the UEA’s school of Environmental sciences – in my opinion it’s the best institution of its kind in the world. It recognizes that to understand the crucial yet complex relationship between humans and the natural environment we need insights from all disciplines” 

The utilization of knowledge needs to be more flexible, more holistic, more Jim Lovelock – especially with a society whose individuals remain largely disconnected from the complex systems which support them. This can only happen if education and its students begin to recognize multilayered knowledge integration as being equally important as examination results. The future’s highly specialised  students will very quickly become disorientated when released into an unstable economy, crippled by such phenomena as the escalating costs of unforeseen climate related damage.

“We envisage a day when the creative, collaborative efforts of naturally inquisitive students from a range of academic backgrounds, will create a unique ability to spot unnatural, quilt-like hazes, that grip picturesque British countryside’s, but not the minds of the wider intellectual community.”

The Interdisciplinary Research Society, UEA

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