In natural science, I have understood, there is nothing petty to the mind that has a large vision of relations and to which every single object suggests a vast sum of conditions. It is surely the same with the observation of human life. George Eliot, 1860
In this passage, the great British novelist George Eliot posits that the scientist and the author have fundamentally the same goal: to understand and portray life. Her idea reflects her interdisciplinary education and her profound respect for a way of thinking that was different from, yet related to, her own.
I believe we are beginning to lose such respect. In a lecture at Stanford, sociology professor Donald Barr explained that academics garner prestige by pursuing research that is solidly located within their fields rather than taking on interdisciplinary projects. Those who do pursue such projects run the risk of being labeled unserious. And in the public eye, respect for areas of study has become ever more tied to the money they make: an April 2012 Daily Beast article entitled “The 13 Most Useless Majors, from Philosophy to Journalism” ranks majors alongside unemployment rates and projected earnings. Far from illustrating that diverse intellectual pursuits can and do interact, public opinion has declared that some disciplines are useless and some are not—and, by implication, that these disciplines have nothing to do with one another.
This kind of divisive language tells people that it’s the money, not the intellectual journey, that matters. And this discourages engagement not only with so-called “useless” disciplines, but with any research that serves the human desire to know over the desire to fix problems and sell products.
Of course, research often results in world-changing discoveries. But even when it doesn’t, even when its sole purpose is to add another drop to the vast ocean of human understanding, even then it is important. If we would prefer a society that asks questions over one that buries its head in the sand, a society that wants to learn to one that doesn’t care, a society that defines worth in terms of merit to one that equates worth with money, it is critical that we defeat this rhetoric of “uselessness” and spark public interest in research from all disciplines.
To do this, I propose a program which would send teams of graduate or post-doctoral researchers to universities nationwide. These researchers would represent the sciences, social sciences and humanities, and would each give a brief presentation to university students about their research. But they would also be tasked with explaining to students how skills learned in their team members’ fields became useful to them in their own work. A biologist, for example, might show that the ability to write effectively she gained in her English classes helped her with the preparation of grants and journal articles. A historian might discuss how the methodical, unbiased model of the scientific method kept him from jumping to conclusions about primary source documents. Once such teams had gotten their feet on the ground in universities, they could seek a broader audience in forums like museums or local libraries. Among their most important jobs would be interacting with the media to reframe public discussion of research on their terms.
A major difficulty of beginning this process would be enticing participating researchers away from stable positions. For this reason, the project would need to be framed as a prestigious grant, offering pay, seminars, and exciting interdisciplinary research opportunities, not to mention the chance to make connections at universities across the nation. This would be an unexceptionable use for the grant moneys of organizations like the Gates Foundation or the National Science Foundation.
The project is an ambitious one, but if we are to keep bitter disciplinary divides from shutting the public out of research and shutting researchers away from one another permanently, we must be prepared to fight them on a grand scale. We must have, as Eliot so beautifully put it, a large vision of relations, one that perceives the shared goal of all researchers: the triumph of knowledge as a cornerstone of our society.Jessi Glueck is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.