For several years now I have been singing the praises of a liberal arts education.  (A liberal arts education is generally accepted as covering the following fields:  the Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Formal Sciences.)

Recently, however, I have been writing in defense of liberal arts as more and more universities are not only emphasizing a STEM education but, more disturbingly, reducing the importance of the Humanities in their offerings.

This month an article, “The ‘Two Cultures’ Fallacy” by Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Summit and Vermeule had a better argument to make on the subject than anything I had previously read or, even written.  (Unfortunately, unless you are a subscriber to that periodical you will not be able to read it in total.)

The following are some short quotes from that extensive and brilliantly reasoned article:

When we were teaching at Stanford in the late 2000s, the terms “techie” and “fuzzy” became cultural touchstones: The “techies” majored in engineering and the sciences, the “fuzzies” in arts and the humanities. Faculty and administrators deplored those words, and students furiously debated them, but the terms — and the split they describe — have become an unshakable stereotype.

Of course, polarization between the humanities and the sciences is by no means unique to Stanford. We hear it when politicians challenge public universities to justify spending on departments outside STEM fields; we hear it when humanities scholars counter that the value of their fields transcends practical application. Defenders of the humanities insist that they teach foundational values and skills; their detractors taunt them for offering “worthless” degrees.

The terms of the debate have become so familiar that speakers on both sides, however vehement or heartfelt their arguments, appear to be reading from a well-worn script. So ingrained is this conflict that it is easy to believe it describes a fundamental division in human knowledge. Although we are literary scholars, we are not here to defend the humanities against the sciences, but instead to show how an age-old debate has both created the division and can show the way past it.  .  .  .

Though the opposition between “practice” and “theory” has served to divide and subdivide disciplines, these divisions do not represent the shape of knowledge in the university today. Emerging academic fields increasingly bring the insights of two or more disciplines together to form new lines of inquiry: bioethics (biology and philosophy), digital humanities (computational methods in history and literature), philosophy of mind (philosophy, neuroscience, and, increasingly, computer science). The new field of optogenetics brings together the work of molecular biologists and neuroscientists to chart the work of the brain, and one of the most popular new fields, sustainability, brings together history, geography, economics, city and regional planning, sociology, anthropology, and engineering.
Where 20th-century disciplines defined themselves through distinction, the new fields of the 21st century are being produced through convergence. These fields, and the forms of knowledge they represent, testify to the emergence of “transdisciplinary thinking.” As Howard Rheingold explains it, “transdisciplinarity goes beyond bringing together researchers from different disciplines to work in multidisciplinary teams. It means educating researchers who can speak languages of multiple disciplines.” More than an amalgamation of discrete disciplines (as suggested by “multidisciplinary” or “interdisciplinary” formations), transdisciplinarity represents a way of thinking that can select perspectives, approaches, and insights from across an array of disciplines and deploy them strategically.
As researchers from the Institute for the Future suggested in their “Future Work Skills 2020″report, “While throughout the 20th century, ever-greater specialization was encouraged, the new century will see transdisciplinary approaches take center stage.” Projects that bring together scientists, engineers, artists, humanists, and social scientists in ways that bridge traditional disciplinary divides produce fresh approaches to complex questions. New knowledge requires new forms of education. Where 20th-century paradigms of teaching and learning emphasized disciplinary specialization, we now need “a new culture of learning” — to quote the title of Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s 2011 book.
The challenge we face as educators is how to restore imagination and creativity to students who have come to associate education with the lack of those qualities. Rather than offering lip service and window dressing, we need to step far outside our dominant models of learning, thinking, and living. Schools discourage creative thinking, the educator Ken Robinson observes, in large part through their tendency to elevate “some disciplines over others.” To counter this, he suggests, “we need to eliminate the existing hierarchy of subjects.”
Rather than reinforce boundaries between disciplines and the value-laden hierarchies that keep them in place, we need to accept that studies in “imagination” and “humanity” are no less vital to work and citizenship than those of “facts” and “machines.” This is the time for humanists and scientists, fuzzies and techies, to overcome the divisions of knowledge, culture, and value that separate them. Doing so will transform the disciplines themselves, and displace the oppositional framework that has for so long defined and divided them.


 More on Monday   –  –  –

       — Bill Walton, co-Founder, ITC Learning 
July 25, 2018  (Mondays & Wednesdays  


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