ACCS 2014

The Asian Conference on Cultural Studies
2014 Featured Speaker
May 30, 2014

Looking Beyond Our Horizons:  Interdisciplinary Education as Our Best Hope for the Future

My opening questions here are deceptively simple—but quickly point to a host of political conflicts and differences of perspective:  how do we learn and, in a higher education context, what should we learn?  Across the US and the world, we hear politicians and lay commentators today call for university training that is focused primarily, if not solely, in the hard sciences and engineering.  In the US over the past year we have even heard our president, the otherwise cultured and sophisticated Barack Obama, dismiss arts education as a waste of time.  State and local governments in America are slashing funding for programs in philosophy, music, languages, and anthropology.  At a time when we are confronted with the enormous challenges of cultural conflict, political strife, and religious intolerance, we are told that our hopes for the future rest on the solutions provided by technology alone.  This is fool-hardy, if not actually self-destructive, in my opinion.  It also is diametrically opposed even to what employers today ask for.

A very recently released survey done by the American Association of Colleges and Universities on employer priorities for undergraduate learning confirmed what we in this room probably already know or intuit:  80% said that they wanted university training to provide a broad base of knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences to new employees; 78% asked for knowledge about global issues, and societies and cultures beyond the students’ home country; 82% wanted colleges and universities to place more emphasis on critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills; 80% wanted more emphasis on written and oral communication skills; and 91% asked for more emphasis on problem solving in diverse settings.  None of those are science or technology based. 

To be sure, we face many profound scientific and related problems—ones pertaining to environmental threats, to the over-use of fossil fuels, and to escalating health crises—but I think that all of these and others raise questions about a much broader and perhaps more difficult problem that embraces us all—from Osaka to New York to London to Moscow.  In the very broadest terms, that problem is simply this:  “How do we effectively communicate with each other across cultures and nations, and learn to collaborate to find effective ways of addressing the scientific and other crises that we face today, as well as the unimaginable others that we will face in the future?” 

In other words, whatever we may isolate as the—or the group of—chief global threats that we face in 2014 (and beyond), we have little or no hope of effectively responding to any of them without finding common ground across nations, cultures, languages, and belief systems.  We cannot address global warming, HIV/AIDS, the threat of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, religious intolerance, famine, poverty, or any other social ill by our own lonely and isolated selves—either as individuals or individual nations.  States often, understandably, act out of national self-interest, but none of the major challenges we face today is solvable by individual nations acting solely on that basis of self-interest, except to the extent that it is in the interest of individual nations to work together collaboratively and energetically.  How then do we begin to solve our biggest and most fundamental problem of them all:  the challenge of living in peace, good will, and a sense of shared interests with our fellow inhabitants of the planet?

By the end of this talk I will return repeatedly to that question because I do not think that science, technology, engineering, or business alone helps us achieve that foundational goal of living in peace, good will, and sense of shared interests with our fellow inhabitants of the planet.  Science will help us cure disease.  Technology will allow us to communicate and travel faster.  Engineering may assist us in generating new forms of energy and protecting against eroding agricultural lands and coastal areas.  Business provides incentives to develop new media, new pharmaceuticals, and new ways of feeding our hungry populations.  However, none of them displaces or challenges self-interest, national or personal.  None of them provides the tools alone to achieve our goal of living in peace, good will, and a sense of shared interest with our fellow inhabitants of the planet.  For that, we need interdisciplinary training in the liberal arts and sciences—especially as informed by the humanities, the social sciences, the visual and performing arts, and cultural studies.  Only interdisciplinarity can teach us how to cross boundaries comfortably, even enthusiastically.  Interdisciplinary perspectives can save us from ourselves and the threats that are produced by a narrow reliance on science, technology, and business.

I do not mean to denigrate any of the other fields or domains that I just mentioned—I think they are all necessary but not sufficient for achieving our long term goals.  Indeed, in the United States one most commonly speak of the “liberal arts and sciences” in that the sciences are included in and are central to a “liberal arts education.”  I am the dean of a college of “arts and sciences,” in which the principles of a liberal arts education are embodied.  The College of Arts and Sciences at Lehigh University includes the departments of Chemistry, Physics, and Biology, along with English, Philosophy, and Psychology, all of these and nine others, existing harmoniously with departments of Art, Theatre, and Music.  We cohere around our belief in and commitment to a liberal arts education.  And what, you might ask then, is not included in a liberal arts education?  That would be training that is specifically “vocational”—tied narrowly and solely to a single form or field of employment.  This includes engineering, business, finance, and computer science.  Students who pursue degrees in those fields at Lehigh University still gain some knowledge of the “liberal arts and sciences” because they take some courses in my college, but the principle underlying their education is much narrower—one of training for a specific job and acquiring the knowledge necessary to do that job.  We like to say that while engineering and business might prepare one for a job, the liberal arts and sciences prepare one for life and a lifetime of employment.  The theory behind a liberal arts and sciences education is that in changing times, one needs the broad education that leads to intellectual flexibility, honed communication skills, and the ability to problem-solve creatively—by crossing boundaries comfortably and enthusiastically.

Some prominent American politicians are arguing the opposite, of course, that especially in public universities, students should not even be given the option to take classes in anthropology, philosophy, or religion studies because those fields have no (in their critics’ perspectives) “practical” use value or benefit.  I again assert the opposite:  we do not need more narrowly trained technicians—we need more creative thinkers who see the world’s problems as more than simply technical challenges.  This is not to say that philosophers will solve all world crises—far from it.  A philosophy or art student will benefit as much from exposure to math, sciences, and business fields as students in technical fields will benefit from exposure to art and literature.  It broadens one’s vision—one’s horizon.  I have a PhD in English but my ability to manage successfully a $48 million budget for the College of Arts and Sciences is as much a product of the training I had in math and accounting as it was the analytical and communication skills I acquired through my humanities education.  They have to go hand in hand.  But I certainly would not accept a claim that I am a success only because I took 2 semesters of accounting classes as an undergraduate.

It is no surprise that two of the most revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century—Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs—were also individuals who loved music, art, and culture.  They had a complexity of vision acquired through a deep exposure to the original thinking and creative expression that lead to innovation.  Indeed, Jobs attributed some of his most revolutionary advances in designing the first generation of Apple computers to the influence of a calligraphy class he took at Reed College.  The modern personal computer is partially the result of an immersion in Chinese character drawing.  Similarly Einstein studied and play violin, and had a deep love of German philosophy.  They were not narrowly trained technicians.  What they exemplified was the power of interdisciplinary training and a liberal arts education broadly based.  They expanded our horizons, because the borderlands of their knowledge and perspective had already been challenged through the variety of subject matters and modes of interpreting the world that they encountered as part of a boundary-crossing education.

The 21st century should be the century not of disciplinary knowledge and applications, but of interdisciplinary dialogue, understanding, and advancements.  Yes, the philosophy student needs to study science, mathematics, even business and accounting in order to better understand how the world works and how solutions to the world’s problems can be implemented.  The great French philosopher from the last half of the 20th century, Michel Foucault,  spoke of different philosophical theories as being like “tools in a toolbox.”  I expand upon that to say also that individual disciplines—psychology, chemistry, earth sciences, history, and literary studies—are themselves tools in the grand toolbox of approaches to understanding and addressing the challenges that face us.  Every student needs that broad perspective on the variety of tools that are available for use in problem-solving.  While students may receive deep training in the use of only one or two specific tools—or disciplinary approaches to which they direct much of their studies—they should be able to bring their awareness of others to bear in deciding how best to tackle complex problems.  That is the basis of the liberal arts background I am discussing—multi-disciplinary exposure, interdisciplinary approaches, and cross-disciplinary dialogue.  I am an English professor by training but my cultural studies work and my understanding have been deeply enriched by my education in history, marketing, geography and geology, and philosophy.  In acquainting myself with other disciplines I better understand the limitations of my own.  It is just as important, perhaps even more important, to “know what we do not know” than it is to simply know thoroughly what we do know.  Through training in business and accounting, I know that a philosophical approach to a global problem such as international conflict or religious violence in the Middle East is not enough if it does not address the economic issues that underlie much of the tensions in the world today.  A philosopher can understand better than an accountant why individuals sometimes fear that which is different and foreign, but an accountant or business person understands better than a philosopher how the marketplace functions sometimes to render that which is different more knowable and appealing.  When you have the two working together, or better yet when both perspectives exist in the same individual, you have a richer understanding of the multi-faceted global crisis of intolerance and hostility. 

Indeed what the liberal arts and sciences reveal to us as we explore them in our studies is that we only learn through encounters with difference.  Sameness reinforces itself; it is static and it is limiting.  Just as we learn profound lessons by discovering the differences in methods and approaches offered by art, philosophy, physics, and psychology, so too do we learn profound lessons by discovering the differences in methods and approaches offered by cultures unlike our own.  The paradigm of the liberal arts is usable—generalizable—at a much more profound level. Each being on this earth has her or his unique perspective—or horizon, we might say—shaped by language, culture, ethnicity, family, economic background, personal psychology, gender, sexuality and other individual traits.  Biological neuroscience also tells us that each of us has certain hard-wiring in our brain that helps influence our behaviors and needs.  The paradigm of the liberal arts and sciences reminds us that every individual approach to the world around us is a limited approach, but one that can be enriched by encounters with and explorations of difference.  Like the wealth of differences in the liberal arts and sciences, the diversity of our own human being is a diversity to be celebrated and explored.  Only by encountering what you know can I better understand what I do not know.  Only by hearing about the ways you differ in approach to a problem or topic can I understand the limitations of my own approach to a problem or topic.  That does not mean I will always abandon my own belief and adopt yours—or vice versa—but we both come to a richer understanding of the complexity of problems and topics in the process of exploring our differences.  Our horizons expand.  The liberal arts and sciences embody the same principles of exploration, testing, and enhanced understanding that are keys to peaceful and productive human interaction.

I mentioned earlier that philosophers won’t solve the world’s problems, but certainly they offer us some insights upon which to draw and conceptualize an interdisciplinary approach to higher education.  And I want to turn now to the work of one who I feel offers us an important set of tools. On September 25, 2001, the German newspaper Die Welt published a brief interview with Hans-Georg Gadamer, world-renowned hermeneutic philosopher, regarding his opinion of the events of September 11 in the United States—the attack on the World Trade Center.  His perspective was of interest to the journals and its readers for a couple of reasons.  For one, he had an extraordinary breadth of experience upon which to draw as his life had spanned the entire 20th century.  Born on February 11, 1900, he died at the age of 102 on March 13, 2002, less than a year after the interview.  Though he had lived the first sixty or so years of his life in relative obscurity (though certainly as a successful scholar and academic administrator), he became very well known in his last four decades, after the publication of his magnum opus Truth and Method in 1960 and its English translation in 1975.  Gadamer was, in his final years, considered the grand old master of German philosophy, and was best known for his persistent call for an intense and transformative dialogue between “self” and “other,” much as I am calling for here.  What was his reaction, then, the paper wanted to know, to an attack that left many in the US (and elsewhere) speechless, or worse, calling for swift and violent revenge against all Muslim others?

His answer was hesitant and uncharacteristically vague.  After first admitting that he could not yet fully comprehend the event (“Ich durchschaue das noch gar nicht”), the 101 year old Gadamer revealed that, in fact, everything lately had become quite strange to him:  “Es ist mir recht unheimlich geworden.”  When asked if he still hoped for some form of global understanding through conversational exchange, he responded simply “Ich weiss es nicht.”  “I don’t know.”  His biographer, Jean Grondin, comments that Gadamer no doubt felt that his philosophy as a whole had been called into question by the seemingly dialogue-ending effects of violence on such a grand scale.  Such was perhaps the case.  However, Grondin stops there, ignoring Gadamer’s later words in the short interview.  When asked about a way forward given the proliferation of horrific weapons spawned by human fascination with the technological, he responded, “Was ich tun kann, ist eigentlich nur zu sagen:  Ihr müsst wieder freier werden!”  “What I can do really is only say this to everyone:  You must become freer again!”  Gadamer certainly had no easy or definitive answer to the many problems he perceived, but he also did not retreat into silence; he ended the interview on a provocation and challenge:  if technology serves only to regulate and dictate our actions and reactions, “dann ist es besser ohne Technik,” “then we are better off without it.”  The seductions of technology, and especially of easy technological solutions to longstanding problems of human misunderstanding and cultural mistrust, should never distract us from the hard work of seeking “freedom” as Gadamer had defined it for decades:  from narrowness, fear, prejudice, and hatred.  Indeed, these words resonate in the reminder that he gave just a few months later in the last interview of his life, on the occasion of this 102nd birthday, when he stated that his major “doctrine” remained then as always:  “people cannot live without hope; that is the only thesis I would defend without any restriction.”

“Hope” seems a rather innocuous, even uncontestable, personal and philosophical value; however, that is exactly what is lacking in most current calls for a retreat into solely technological and scientific training.  We who work in the realm of intellectual production, and especially in the production of new intellectuals, should attend to voices like that of Gadamer precisely because he advocates patient engagement, humility, and an appreciation of methodological and epistemological diversity.  The grave challenges that we face in the twenty-first century necessitate an emphasis on listening rather than simply asserting to others.  Listening humbles us.  It reminds us that we can never work effectively on the world around us without welcoming the work that the world around us and the others who inhabit it would do also on us. Indeed, a fundamental concept running throughout much of my own work today is that our only hope for learning is through our seeking and appreciating encounters with others—and the less like ourselves, the better. 

Gadamer’s continuing, indeed deepening, pertinence for me and for all of us working in higher education derives from the generative power of several of his central tenets.  Of these, dialogue is clearly the most significant.  Following his fellow philosophers Husserl and Heidegger, Gadamer approached the problem of “understanding” as one best addressed through a model of and commitment to dialogic interaction.  For Gadamer, all existence is necessarily dialogic, as we encounter the lives and perspectives of others, either in direct interpersonal contact or mediated through literature or other forms of indirect communication.  Such language-based interaction never occurs under ideal circumstances, of course.  Our encounters are compromised through the imprecision and instability of language itself, and through the difficulties of speaking through and across ideological presuppositions, cultural norms, and historical contexts.  Nevertheless, Gadamer’s challenge to us is to embrace the inevitably dialogic nature of our mundane, intellectual, and creative lives.  He asserts that we have the ability to choose our response to the complexity of what can be an overwhelming babble of human perspectives and foundational beliefs.  We can retreat into the shelter of dogma or we can enter the cacophonous fray with curiosity, enthusiasm, and, especially, humility.

Gadamer geographizes this dynamic, with his chosen metaphor being that of the  “horizon.”  We all exist within a cognitive realm that reflects our specific positioning within a landscape of circumstances and belief.  As a fifty-three year old, white, middle-class academic man from the United States, I have my own unique sets of experiences and presuppositions that I bring with me to every encounter.  Indeed, Gadamer reminds us repeatedly that there is no fully transcendent point of view.  We exist within a perspective, or standpoint epistemology, that reflects the sum total of our encounters and, as importantly, our use of them.  This does not mean that we are simply tabula rasa upon which the world imprints.  We are instead agents—ethical, thinking beings—whose horizons can be static or dynamic to greater or lesser degrees depending upon the decisions that we make.

All horizons shift inevitably though dialogic encounters over the course of a lifetime.  These interactions may be in the form of face-to-face and directly verbal contact between living human beings, or it may be in the form of reading or aesthetic experience.  When I converse with another person or read a treatise or novel from centuries past, I encounter a point of view (or many) that presents me with a challenge.  The other asks:  what do I know that you do not?  What have I seen or experienced that you have not?  What can you learn from me?  Similarly, the living other whom I encounter is thus challenged by me.  Because of shared cultural background, class, or religion, our horizons may overlap considerably; the encounter may be a very comfortable one.  However, the greatest intellectual delight comes from those divergences from which both of us can learn significant new lessons.  Whom we seek out for conversational encounters, to whom we choose to listen and how carefully, and the respect with which we treat our most diverse interlocutors become key decisions in any process of intellectual growth.  A fusion of sorts is possible when we find a means of communicating through and about our most profound differences and to the extent that we approach every dialogic encounter as a unique learning opportunity.  Only through a forthright and aggressive attempt to learn from the other can our own horizons shift and expand in significant ways.  And what we learn should first and most fundamentally from the other is how to begin to perceive our own limitations and mistakes.  And this is true for our social and political selves, as well, I assert her, our disciplinary selves.  No one disciplinary horizon is limitless or perfect; they are all bound by tradition, mis-judgment and partiality of perspective.  They must grow and metamorphose through interdisciplinary contact, dialogue, and fusion.  This feels risky but is ultimately highly generative. Indeed, if there is one thing that I hope we can impart to students it is that creativity and enhanced understanding can only follow upon risk. Indeed, an intellectual life must be a life of risk:  risking the safety of one’s fundamental beliefs, risking the possibility of looking ill-informed, risking a skeptical retort, risking that one might be misunderstood, and, most importantly, risking that one might be proven wrong.  The challenge to those of us working as intellectuals and working to create new intellectuals is that of disrupting one of the fundamentals of most previous intellectual modes of being:  that of defensive, unassailable, and superior knowing.  An intellectualism that asserts without listening, that revels in the demolition of the other’s perspective, and that remains sure of itself and the sanctity of its position in the face of all challenge is not an intellectualism that is living or dynamic. It is a dead and deadening narcissism.  It is attractive to the insecure, to the overly secure, and certainly to the professionally ambitious; but it is ethically, politically, and pedagogically irresponsible.  Deborah Tannen, in her book, The Argument Culture, has done superb work on this topic.  I would add that beyond its roots in problematic social and media-driven behavior, which is her focus, it also is an effect of the curse of disciplinary dogma.

The challenge to all of us is to embrace the inevitability of feelings of uncertainty and estrangement in the face of the extraordinary diversity of beliefs in our world.  As never before, we exist in a technologically abetted, often media-driven global conversation on issues of lifestyle, human rights, religious tradition, and class inequity.  We will all feel “unheimlich”—disconnected from the familiar, scared, threatened, and insecure—as we encounter the strangeness of the other speaking or acting from a horizon that may be very different from our own.  In fact, the “heimlich”—the quiet and safe, the cloistered, the narrowly familiar—is precisely what the strangeness of the world should disrupt.  To live as an enthusiastically border-crossing intellectual should mean that we all occasionally say, as Gadamer did, “Es ist mir recht unheimlich geworden.”  Everything has become quite strange to me lately.

If we take as a fundamental fact of our existence today an historically unparalleled and pervasive encounter with otherness through the innumerable ways that individuals today come in contact with each other and with cultural perspectives unlike their own, then we desperately need education that asserts the necessity of such unsettling encounters.  Through commercial media, through web-based interactions, through classroom exchange, and through study abroad, leisure, and business travel, we in the twenty-first century encounter different cultures, languages, belief systems, religions, and lifestyles in a quantity and potential quality that is historically unparalleled.  All too often such encounters result in suspicion, exploitation, and ideological retrenchment.  How do we encounter the “unheimlich,” how do we experience being unsettled, without responding through violence or a retreat into dogma or fearful and destructive isolationism?

I do not have easy answers to such worrying questions—but the questions are ones, nevertheless, from which we must not shy away.  What I will continue to assert is that dogma, retrenchment, and reductivism are the worst of all possible responses when we are confronted with profound, perplexing, and even distressing difference.  It is a form of hubris that characterizes not only the political commentators and demagogues that Deborah Tannen examines but also many academics who assert the inviolability of their own truths, their own disciplinary perspectives.  As difficult and even unimaginable as it may be for many intellectuals, we and our students sometimes just need to be quiet and listen more carefully.

In sum, I want to leave you with a call for an investment in forms of education and interdisciplinarity that are relevant to twenty-first century life, ones that are respectful of others but also self-confident in what we offer others, ones that are self-aware but not self-satisfied.  Some of the most joyous moments in my life have occurred in the process of conversing with others.  Some of the worst moments in my life have occurred in similar situations.  Conversations can thrill us.  Conversations can practically kill us (and they can literally do so if they lead to violence).  We shoulder grave responsibilities in educating our students in a transformational intellectualism that is also welcoming and respectful.  Technology alone does not help us there.

What the diversity of the arts and sciences offer us is the opportunity to engage in a dialogue across differences, to work toward an understanding of complexity and ambiguity.  In my own college, I call this large project of the arts and sciences a “Dialogue Toward Understanding.”  In our teaching and research, we must welcome diverse opinions and differing perspectives, and through those gain a better understanding of the complexity of social, scientific, and cultural questions, as well as our own blind spots.  Through interdisciplinary training we prepare students to participate with respect, curiosity, and self-awareness in their professional lives, in their engagements with the arts, and in civil society.  Our students are equipped to respond flexibly and creatively to challenges of the future, ones that we cannot even anticipate today.  We can couple the practical and the philosophical, the applied and the theoretical, the scientific and the aesthetic.  Out of that intersection and mutual enrichment can come a group of graduates who are better able to tackle the enormity of the challenges of violence, hatred, and intolerance.  We need visionaries; we need innovators; we need individuals who are able to place their own selfish needs into a broader perspective of human needs and shared challenges. 

We need an interdisciplinary approach to the liberal arts and sciences as never before.  On our ability to cultivate tolerance, a love for difference, and a respect for diversity hinges our very survival.  In contrast to those who claim primacy for the technological, I say that an interdisciplinary liberal arts education is perhaps our only hope for the future.