The other day I had the wonderful opportunity to meet up with a high school friend. Through our conversation, we serendipitously wandered through topics of Nietzsche, statistical inaccuracies in peer-reviewed literature, ethnography, and much more that we had both studied. It was only speculation of both of our limited backgrounds, though. Neither of us intended to claim expertise on any of the subjects nor could reliably do justice to all of the topics we mentioned, but would enjoyed to muse about little things we had read here and there. Particularly, she was very interested in my academic background of physics and philosophy.
On a purely anecdotal level, I’ve already met plenty of students with studying disparate fields. Combinations like biology and art history, mathematics and philosophy, theatre and literature, and neuroscience and gender studies are just a few examples of degree programs of students only satisfied in intellectual diversity. These paths of disparate majors might have unexplored value, as well. We are already seeing more humanities majors entering medical school, and a students have perceived greater gains when studying seemingly unrelated fields.
“A man cannot serve two masters.”
Here at IU, many of my friends enter college with a lot of AP credits or exemption from certain classes. Some of us take advantage of this space to broaden our horizons or explore completely new fields of study. It’s also easy to find several course offerings that do not lie in a strict single “field,” and, instead, may invite knowledge from various areas (for example, the History and Philosophy of Science, Bioethics, Medieval Philosophy, etc). While I highly recommend pursuing academic excellence in disparate fields, I’m a bit more skeptical of the value of these interdisciplinary courses. They may compromise value from multiple fields for the sake of explaining a one-size-fits-all course that fails to do justice to any single field. It is better to understand how to approach problems from different points-of-view through specialized training of those different fields. Since we are at a university campus with monumental levels of diversity of course offerings, it makes sense that many of us choose to study subjects that may seem unrelated. But is our love of disparate disciplines only caused by having the luxury of being able to explore them? Or is it the result of something else?
Getting the best of both worlds meant everyday was something different for me. Sometimes I would be enamored by phase-space diagrams and other days it would be a classical dialogue. As the nights would linger on, I would spend each moment poring through the infinite of my laptop in a constant cycle between physics, philosophy, and probably something important. Sometimes my attention would become so I can hardly keep focus on a single thought for more than a few minutes at a time. I can’t help but wonder if our obsession with disparate fields is at least partly caused by an inundation of new, varied information everyday. But even before the advent of smartphones and personal computers, the unpredictable yet exciting problems of the 20th and 21st century have called for a certain intellectual flexibility that cannot be approached through simple, straightforward training programs anymore. The way we explore multiple fields might have value in the way we create a liberal arts education.
The type of undying curiosity and ambition hearkens back to the days of da Vinci and Michelangelo. Back to the days when engineers crafted sculptures, musicians wrote books, and philosophers had jobs. The University of Southern California created the program, “Renaissance Scholars” specifically for students who have studied disparate fields. One of my previous philosophy professors wasn’t too fond of the title “Renaissance Scholars.” “The Renaissance is over,” he declared. The Renaissance may be over, but let’s hope our re-birth of disparate knowledge never ends.