Over the past couple of months, I have heard bright leaders of interdisciplinary centers/programs at top Universities advocate fiercely that what leaders today (and thus, their students) need for success is interdisciplinary education. This reasonable idea requires "advocates" because it threatens the status quo of traditional academic structures. A department budget is often based upon the number of students that major in the department. The success of a department may be evaluated by the number of students who go on to get an advanced degree in that discipline. Interdisciplinary programs make accounting under the traditional system a challenge, and potential casualties of any disruption might include tenure, funding/salaries, departmental size and department status.
Universities have an opportunity to adapt to the rapidly changing world by developing new educational modalities, implementing new approaches to learning, and supporting new programs that will prepare students to lead, excel and thrive. The public entrusts universities with the task of educating our young people to meet the demands of tomorrow. Universities have an obligation to look critically at their efforts and to identify structural barriers to empowering students with relevant, applicable knowledge and skills to navigate our complex, dynamic world.
1) Maximizing the value of an interdisciplinary education
While appreciation for the value of interdisciplinary studies is new, they are not novel. I was an interdisciplinary studies major (Humanistic Area Studies), yes, four quartets ago. Ironically, I would say unequivocally that the process of making my interdisciplinary major happen was the most valuable part of my college education. I learned how to negotiate in the face of a Goliath of unknowns, politics, bureaucracy and resistance. It was an early success and remains a constant reminder that I can make the seemingly impossible- happen. I apply those skills everyday in my life work as an entrepreneurial social change agent. The lessons of practical experience are invaluable and must be better integrated into whatever new interdisciplinary structure emerges. Beyond the substance of interdisciplinary problem solving, students need to learn how to apply these ideas in context so that they can concurrently develop the skills to lead and flourish as an interdisciplinary agents of change. (Great example from U of Calgary featured in Tools of Engagement on innovating experiential learning) The MDG and CGI have galvanized terrific momentum in the SE ecosystem, and we will still have work to do! Our global economy and society will benefit from students having more access to interdisciplinary studies, so yes, let's have more of that, please!
2) Creating change requires humility and depth
Interdisciplinary programs allow synergistic ideas to emerge and unleash the possibility that stems from bringing multiple views together to create new perspectives. Yet, interdisciplinary programs need to provide students with depth. The green MBA and Skoll Scholarships for Social Entrepreneurship MBA provide students with necessary MBA skills while adding focus, connections, resources to apply these in a novel domain. Likewise, having a law degree with my Certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution grounds my negotiation and mediation skills in a concrete actionable framework. The Certificate in Bioethics & Medical Humanities program that I completed was designed for working clinicians. Today, many people are graduating with advanced degrees in Bioethics but with no clinical background and they have difficulty getting a job. In practice environments where the goal is to make and lead change, one needs concrete skills to contribute to the effort. Stand alone programs run the risk of providing students with great ideas and new perspectives, but without the depth of concrete skills (MBA, JD, MD, Design, Engineering, IT, Art) necessary to catalyze change. Changing the paradigm of the traditional degree is essential and preparing students with a foundation that affords humility and depth that adds value in at least one arena is critical.
3) Allowing the dynamic vision of interdisciplinary perspectives to flourish
Interdisciplinary centers bring people from different disciplines together to facilitate dialogue and problem solving. Open minded people meet, projects emerge and collaborations begin. Supporting students to find interdisciplinary links is an important opportunity for degree programs. In the absence of interdisciplinary programs, I had the opportunity to envision my own linkages in the rich, vast sea of humanities. I combined Classical Studies with Latin American Studies- not one that comes to mind on first review, but my thesis was a comparative study of ancient Greek and ancient Mayan mythological views of the underworld and its impact on their world view and approach to living. Unlike the traditional comparative literature focus of contrasting, I was most interested in the commonalities. Part of the opportunity of absence of an interdisciplinary program was that it allowed the envisioning of a new perspective- an innovative view. When the faculty are already there and the interdisciplinary seeds are planted by the courses, I wonder will the opportunities for dynamic vision be accelerated, better channeled, or lost?
What do you think tomorrow's leaders need?
This is the first in a series of posts about structure and change in the social enterprise ecosystem. These are my musings and reflect my views following conversations with people who work in both undergraduate and graduate environments at universities around the world.