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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

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Defending the University

A recent op-ed in the New York times demanded that we “End the University as We Know It”! Interestingly, it is written by the chairman of a religion department. His general claim is that the departmental structure and attitude of the university system is out of date and not very useful. He envisions universities structured around topics like water, where people from engineering, social science, natural science, and humanities would come together to solve problems. He sees over-specialty (“research in subfields within subfields”) as a problem.

I’m not the first to criticize his view – there have been 437 comments on the nytimes website – and much of my initial reaction has been stated rather well at the Female Science Professor Blog. I specifically take issue with the idea that the material learned as an undergraduate (or in graduate school) is not, in itself, useful. This is not true in all cases. The basic quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, and statistical mechanics I learned as an undergraduate paved the way for the graduate material on these topics. Understanding these fundamentals then allows one to understand how superconductors and other novel materials work – this allows one to design a better hard drive. The level of specialty required for that sort of work is not what someone can learn in a broad interdisciplinary program!

Restructuring education around “big problems” would mean all of the small problems would slip through the cracks. Plenty of great technologies did not originate intentionally. The internet is a classic example – few realized how much it would expand beyond a few scientists using it to communicate – accelerators and radiation are another. Physicists made accelerators to study the building blocks of matter, and they are now used to treat cancers. I have a hard time believing that an interdisciplinary group working to treat cancer (in a world where particle accelerators didn’t exist) would decide to create accelerator technology. The research that only interests a few people may simply be so groundbreaking that more have not yet learned the necessary skills or approaches to participate. The op-ed seems to believe that the existence of narrow fields precludes interdisciplinary work and changing departments. While an undergraduate at MIT I saw the Ocean Engineering program end and the BioEngineering program begin. I fear his vision of the University would end so much of the exciting work done in physics, and the current University system is welcoming of interdisciplinary work, perhaps the op-ed’s knowledge isn’t relevant to any of it.

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