Seminar Skills: Thinking Interdisciplinarily

I was recently able to sit in on a presentation about college admissions for students and parents, focused primarily on liberal arts education.

The speaker addressed the parents in the room and asked how many of them had heard of the job Social Media Manager ten years ago. User Experience Designer? Cloud developer?

These are all jobs that have been created within the last ten years or so in response to changes in our world. Technology has revolutionized the world and is developing faster and faster every day. She ended with the idea that it makes no sense to go to school for something based on future market predictions; we just don’t know what types of jobs will be available by the time any given group of students will be graduating from school. This is not how to prepare for the future because most of what you’ll learn this way is likely to be outdated by the time you graduate.

I believe that a broad-based education on the undergraduate level, where you focus less on the mastery of one skill and more on the development of many ways of thinking, is the surest way of ensuring preparation for our rapidly changing world. Our experience at St. John’s is ideal for doing just that.

But how does studying ancient books prepare students for the future?

One of the most important components of the curriculum is the fact that you read a wide range of subjects chronologically. In math, you work your way through Euclid’s Elements to Newton’s Principia. In Music, you understand the polyphony of Palestrina and the chromaticism of Chopin. In science, you move your way through the beginnings of the scientific method all the way through the beginnings of quantum physics. Through all of this, you are not only getting a sense of these different subjects, you are also seeing the way that they have evolved over time. You understand that these subjects are not static—at one point in the Program, the earth was at the center of the universe, and then all of a sudden, it’s not! Paradigms shift, and the subjects evolve, often influencing each other in the process. Our world progresses, too, and developing this as an instinct, I think, prepares students to identify opportunities to be innovative and creative in a unique way.

What this also creates is an environment to think about these subjects interdisciplinarily. Our Program is one comprehensive liberal arts major. Students will study everything together. What develops around this concept is a common language through which you can tie together the subjects of science, language, literature, philosophy, and many others. You can talk about ways in which ideas you are covering in philosophy affect what you are learning in mathematics, and the ways in which what you’ve learned in language might manifest in science. You learn that these subjects do not just exist on their own, but are intrinsically linked. 

But how does this mindset manifest in the workplace? Why is it valuable?

Many of the great innovations of our world were made by people who were able to think outside the box and find ways to allow the arts and sciences come together. Steve Jobs was famously inspired by a calligraphy class he took at Reed, and it ended up influencing how he approached technology. Albert Einstein was not only a dedicated mathematician, but also a violinist. Leonardo Da Vinci was at once a world-class engineer and artist. On any given team at any given company, there are creative people who are looking to identify opportunities where paradigms are shifting—where they might be able to make something new.  I think the future lies in the hands of these folks, and I think our students are able to take full advantage of that.







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