Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Albert Szent-György, the Hungarian biochemist and 1937 Nobel Prize-winner, once said that “discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.”  This power helps develop the mind’s natural capacity for exploration, curiosity and adaptability.

It seems a terrible shame, therefore, that individuals should be prevented from exercising this power by their peers.  When I was an undergraduate student, I was always considered “above-average” – the kind of person who could be relied upon to produce safe, well-produced essays without any particular originality of insight.  Even when I did try to be “different” – in other words, discuss texts in ways that might not have already been set down in print – I was always criticized for not doing a “proper” piece of work, with each point substantiated by reference to already-established critical authorities.

It is only recently that I discovered that such judgments were characteristic of those who are “unadaptable.”  Despite their positions as professors of English in higher education institutions, their entire lives are governed by the fear of being different, of branching out in new directions, or encouraging others to do the same.  Such fears are often inspired by personal as well as professional motives; it does not look good for professors to be outshone by their learners (especially if they are trying to acquire a reputation); while the need to publish in “established,” internationally recognized journals – which often have a rigid theoretical or methodological agenda – inhibits them from producing new and innovative work.

I was reminded of how dominant such beliefs actually are, when I visited a university in Killeen, Texas earlier this week.  I talked to a group of liberal studies learners, who were specifically engaged in inter- or transdisciplinary work.  The task seemed to be arduous – far more difficult than they had anticipated – but at least it gave them the chance to try and forge new connections between apparently diverse materials in literature, politics, history and art.  I was impressed with what they were trying to achieve; but my optimism was abruptly quenched when I learned from their professor that “liberal studies” was perceived by senior members of his department as a soft option; the kind of study pursued only by those not sufficiently capable of passing Master’s courses in more established majors – history, politics, or English. 

This form of intellectual denigration inevitably affects the learners’ motivation – not only do they experience considerable self-doubt (what they are pursuing is not really valuable), but they believe that the outcomes, whatever they might be, will not be recognized.  Put more baldly, “liberal studies” just helps them to obtain their diploma (and makes the institution’s graduate program look good by improving its statistics).

As I listened to the learners, and their professor, I wondered why their peers are so reluctant to recognize a form of education that will inevitably produce something different, both intellectually as well as materially (in the form of publications).  Is it because they are unadaptable (like my professors in the early Eighties), or is it because they have been so conditioned by the ideological connotations of the term “discipline” (implying a rigorous and tightly controlled form study) that they are unable to think out of the box?  Is that what a university education has come to: a series of intellectual reinvented wheels, enabling faculty members to remain in-post while preventing their learners from making use of their natural curiosity?

If such is the case, then there is definitely a crisis in higher education – especially the humanities.  I recently read an article from 2013 published in The Atlantic, in which the scholar Heidi Tworek argued that the real reason for this crisis, especially in the United States, was that women (who once used to choose the humanities) had now deserted the humanities in favor of more practically-based subjects.  They have looked for a more “practical” degree instead.

While not wanting to disagree with this point of view, I suggest that this is only a contributory factor to the crisis.  What is perhaps more significant is that learners see no point in pursuing a humanities-based education, especially if it is in any way innovative (combining “practical” with “artistic” subjects, whatever that might mean), because their professors are more than likely to regard such programs with disdain.

When we talk about “adaptability,” we have to realize that everyone, regardless of age, experience, or status, should be willing to embrace this concept.  Otherwise the future of education, especially inter- or transdisciplinary education, looks bleak indeed.

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