If you ask any undergraduate about their concentration, you will likely hear about the courses they have taken, the problems they have been asked to think about, and the methods they have been taught to use. Economics students will mention their econometrics classes, students in the sciences will describe the work they have done in labs, and students in the humanities and other social sciences will describe a myriad of research and writing conventions that set each of their disciplines apart from the others.
These methodological silos are important, and it is appropriate that undergraduate concentrators understand the epistemology and the expectations of their discipline. Concentrations can and should instill that knowledge. Learning each discipline equips students to read and eventually produce academic work that can engage with broader conversations in their disciplines.
Ultimately, the purpose of teaching method is to enable the study of complex problems in conversation with others in the discipline who have studied those problems already. Biology concentrators may hope to go to medical school, economics concentrators may hope to consult or study public policy, engineers may hope to learn the way the complex material world around us is constructed, and to work at the forefront of that world, building the engineering solutions to the future that may help alleviate poverty, combat climate change, or simply increase our standard of living.
Still, why limit that conversation within the discipline? None of these problems — providing healthcare, alleviating poverty, or combating climate change — is best understood in the isolation of a single way of thinking. Doctors’ work can be made more impactful by the work of policy experts, Environmental Science & Engineering concentrators who want to build a climate-proof future need the help of earth and climate scientists, as well as economists. History’s attempts to understand the arc of the past are incomplete without the tools of literature, archaeology, and anthropology for understanding the social and material character of a culture.
Real life is interdisciplinary. The kinds of questions we will confront as adults in the world may not be solvable within the confines of a single discipline. That is not to say these disciplinary strictures are not worth learning. They are, and Harvard should continue to teach them. But our courses should also reflect an understanding of the kinds of problems we will be asked to face.
That means that being conversant in the methods and insights of complementary disciplines at some basic level should be part of the educational approach of all concentrations. This learning can even be done in the context of posing complex problems that require us to consider what insights other disciplines might have. Programs like the General Education requirements already seek to do this to some extent, and their efforts are laudable, but deserve expansion. Engineering students might study the process of scaling up structural innovations to the entire economy, pre-med students might examine the challenge of delivering affordable, equitable, high-quality healthcare to everyone, and government students might consider the process of solving a salient political problem, like gun violence, in the context of public health. Such an approach has the added benefit of asking students to consider realistic, meaningful scenarios to connect their work to the real world, as well as encouraging interdisciplinary thinking.
The Embedded EthiCS program, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the philosophy and computer science departments, is an encouraging step in this direction. It recognizes and preserves the centrality of excellence in the core discipline — Computer Science — but forces students to reckon with the ethical implications of the systems that others before them have designed and they will soon go on to manage themselves. An even more impressive step would be to put those ethical discussions in the context of policy dilemmas in the sphere of big tech. One professor in the program has already expressed hope that the approach will encourage reflection for those in it who may seek careers in government.
Methodological and academic divisions represent genuine differences in approaching the hard questions of the world today. Those differences are legitimate, and it is important for students to develop real expertise in the methodologies of their field of choice. But it cannot be the only priority. To prepare students to tackle the challenges we hope to overcome as a society in the coming decades and beyond, Harvard should encourage us to think about real-life problems. In so doing, the University will spur us to discover insights that disciplines we never bothered to examine before have to offer and to marshal as many ways of thinking as possible.
As well as pedagogically useful, this approach has a deeper benefit. Knowing from real, lived experience that your own way of thinking will not yield as full an understanding of a complex issue as addressing it from multiple perspectives is simply a useful life lesson. Skepticism about the totality of one’s own expertise, willingness to listen to diverse perspectives, and the ability to understand how different thought processes yield different conclusions foster intellectual rigor, inclusive collaboration, and plain old empathy. Learning those lessons should be as much a goal of our time at Harvard as any others.
Ari E. Benkler ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.