Stanley Katz, Chronicle of Higher Ed – The Chronicle Review – Brainstorm, Dec. 4, 2008
I wrote in my last post about the downside of specialization, and one of the commenters quite rightly responded that whatever the virtues of a more general orientation, generalists have a hard time finding academic employment these days.
Quite right. I am, alas, sure that the trend to subdisciplinarity will not disappear anytime soon. But the problem is even more profound. Luke Menand, one of my favorite commentators on higher education, recently gave a paper at Princeton on interdisciplinarity, a much ballyhooed style of scholarship and pedagogy these day s. Luke’s main point was that what we normally call “interdisciplinarity” is really better described as hyperdisciplinarity, since it depends utterly upon disciplinary knowledge: “It is not an escape from disciplinarity; it is the scholarly and pedagogical ratification of disciplinarity.” Or, “Interdisciplinarity is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. . . . [It] actually rigidifies disciplinary paradigms.” Luke goes further, and claims that interdisciplinarity is a symptom of anxiety about professional status (which has traditionally been created by the disciplines), an attempt to shake free of the constraints imposed by the disciplines — but it cannot go far enough to do the job.
From: “Brainstorms” – the blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education (on-line forum, October 3, 2008)
By Stanley Katz
Last week I attended a seminar on the history of general education with a number of other people who are trying to think how general education might best be presented to college students. Many of us are familiar with the larger outlines of the story, which begins with the World War I efforts at Columbia University and travels through Robert Maynard Hutchins’s University of Chicago to James Bryant Conant’s Harvard.
The standard story, of course, ignores many interesting and promising developments at less well-known institutions, and in any case becomes too complicated to follow in the post-general-education era of the 1970s and beyond — multiple versions of “core” curricula, and much more. But the larger idea of a more general education persists, even though it means many different things to many different people.
I have been asked to carry on a “conversation” on the subject at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities in Seattle this coming January — I suppose because many of us committed to liberal education (whatever we mean by that phrase) cannot get it out of our heads that we owe our students something more than disciplinary (or professional) education.
But we also know that students are voting (by selecting majors) for the practical — The Chronicle reported on September 9 that the number of majors in economics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has risen from 183 to 442 over the past decade. I believe that economics is currently the largest field of concentration at my own liberal-arts university. And in larger universities, such as Wisconsin, the School of Commerce probably attracts as many or more concentrators. Overall, of course, the problem is not so much the decline in enrollments in the humanities and social sciences, as the flight from the arts and sciences. Physics and math are hurting too, and for the same reasons.