One disjuncture between universities and the rest of the world is their organization of knowledge and expertise. The world is filled with what the academy would label as “applications.” The private sector provides goods and services to consumers. The social and the government sector provides services to solve or avoid various societal problems. The knowledge and skills required to produce those products and services are often diverse. In contrast, the school and departmental organization of the academy propels ever-deeper exploration into knowledge in a homogeneous domain (e.g., history, physics, sociology). Of course, when one is inside one of these departments, it’s easy to point out the diversity of intellectual pursuits within them. So in reality, homogeneity is a matter of degree, not some sort of “off-on” status.
Outside the academy human endeavors often simultaneously use knowledge from multiple disciplines. When one combinatory pattern of disciplinary knowledge is found useful over and over again, professions emerge around the combination, which tend to be more multidisciplinary (e.g., law, business, policy studies).
The validity of the academic organization into departments has been proven itself repeatedly, even from an applied perspective. Basic knowledge discoveries or developments often have their applications decades after their birth, and many of the tools and skills we utilize tomorrow depend on the continuous extension of basic knowledge. The departments do basic knowledge well. Hence, universities continue to invest in the core disciplines.
Linking these observations to the future of higher education is important. We want to give students experiences in deep learning within a domain. That experience of pushing deeper and deeper into more and more sophisticated understanding of a field is an important step in forming their intellectual character. Easy answers rarely have staying power. Sophisticated understanding requires concerted effort.
But we’d also like to give students the growth experience that comes when one works on a problem that doesn’t nicely fit into a given domain. Such experiences can blend together students whose deep disciplinary learning comes from different domains. The students face the uncomfortable (but all too real) necessity of understanding the language, concepts, methods, and perspectives of other domains. The peer-based learning comes from shared focus on a given problem.
Through these dual experiences, a student can have both a major field of study and a problem area of application (or multiple areas of application). Some of this is happening across the university, led by faculty seeking to enhance experiential learning, sometimes in a joint teaching format with multiple fields represented. The challenge for our future is building evermore opportunities for these experiences.