University Restoration III: Interdisciplinary Talk and Justification

This is Part III of a short series on the state of American universities mostly through the lens of UC Berkeley. Here are Part I and Part II.

Berkeley’s trying to integrate a social science component into the engineering curriculum. I think the administration realizes that this represents a necessary change, but in real terms they don’t really know how. Everyone talks about how the world is shrinking with globalization and how we need more interdisciplinary work, &c., &c., but so far all these things are clichés in a world where even universities, places founded to instil habits of deliberation and foster the cultivation of the mind, are prone to fads and more fads.

Some UC Berkeley history

I am not surprised. According to the brief history Cal gives of itself on its website, the university has been considering its mission since it was formed by the merger of two educational institutions of different characters:

  1. The College of California, a private institution founded by former Congregational minister Henry Durant from New England, was incorporated in 1855 in Oakland. Its curriculum was modelled after that of Yale and Harvard, with the addition of modern languages to the core courses in Latin, Greek, history, English, mathematics, and natural history.
  2. The Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College was established in 1866 when the California legislature decided to take advantage of the federal Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. The college was to teach agricultural, mechanical arts and military tactics “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” Scientific and classical studies were not to be excluded but were of secondary importance.

Since the two schools and their curricula were blended to form “a complete university”, Cal has always had to think about the very foundations (no pun intended) of its own direction.

Lessons from history to today

Research, even pure science, cannot be divorced from the larger efforts of learning and education.

At least one thing we can learn from the historic composition of the university: that at the time the University of California was founded people saw no reason to segregate “liberal education” from “practical education”. Yes, the original institutions placed different emphasis on the two, but there was no wall of separation; instead, the two contributed to a unity, to the person as well as to the university formed out of this apparent duality.

It is right, then, for the administration to recognize that the College of Engineering, a more “practical” sector, needs to be in touch with the great issues and truths that touch humanity. It were well also that we should recognize that research, even pure science, cannot be divorced from the larger efforts of learning and education, that scholarship is not simply for Ph.D. recipients to ply their trade like any other but for the entire community to truly learn and truly teach.

This is not just a high ideal for a university to mention in passing and on its College of Letters and Science web pages but indeed a crucial part of what makes a university. Have we a coherent view of the university today? I don’t know, but something tells me there is something to the conflicting stereotypes of faculty and students, and the only single direction it points to is some kind of career advancement for everyone.

We have lost something: a reason, apart from social convention, for the university’s continued existence. This is what we need to breathe new life into leaden curricula and leaden lecture halls.


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