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Suicide of academic isolationism

Lance Gallop | Wednesday, March 22, 2006

It just so happens that the finest professor I ever had while I was a student at Notre Dame taught the two-semester Arts and Letters Core course. Not coincidentally this course was also the occasion of significant and lasting personal and intellectual growth on my part (you know, the kind that is always advertised in admissions brochures, but that no one honestly expects to experience).

That professor no longer works for the University – to its loss – nor does Core now exist as anything but a fading echo of its prior aims. It has since been molested into submission by a coalition of shortsighted students unable to understand its value and of professors lacking the skill and insight to teach it properly. What passes for Core these days (the “College Seminar”) is really just an excuse for professors to once again teach to their own disciples and perhaps a few pet interests.

This is very much a sign of the times, because Core in its uncompromised form was one of the University’s most demanding courses in terms of professorial ability. It required a special kind of instructor – one able to step outside of the narrowness of his own discipline, possessing an appreciation for and skill with interrelationships and holding no small amount of life-wisdom. But what should have been an occasion for the University’s greatest minds, those who incarnate Notre Dame’s mission, to step forward (the late Robert Vacca, who was among these and who did teach Core, notwithstanding) more often fell on the shoulders of those who happened to be of lowest departmental rank.

The rape of Core is regrettable (and a sore point for me, as you may have noticed), but I draw your attention to it now because it is indicative of the greater and self-exacerbating trend of academic specialization, where each disciple strictly isolates itself from its neighbors (due in no small part to their steep learning curves) and of the consequential losses to our society and culture.

Computers, and their maintainers, are an excellent practical case study of the phenomena since almost everyone interacts with computers on a daily basis, but rarely thinks twice about it. Consider programmers – the men and women whose chosen task it is to mediate between the world of information, communications and algorithms and the normal people who try to use these processes to improve their daily lives.

Programmers are typically trained in advanced math, computer architecture, methodology, a half-dozen programming languages (ideally) of varied properties and (if they are lucky) project management and team coordination. With hard work and about seven years of practical experience, a programmer with this foundation can become adept enough to produce very high quality work – as long as its intended audience is another programmer.

You will never find a Computer Science student – even at the most advanced schools – studying art, architecture, psychology, sociology and politics as part of her primary training. Even in schools that take a stab at requiring courses in other disciplines – like Notre Dame with its philosophy and theology – there is almost no one in the Computer Science department who makes any attempt at linking these ideas. So colleges churn out programmers who are very good at the mechanics of their art, but who nonetheless miss the point of the entire endeavor. After all, how can someone design software for humans lacking a sound understanding of how people relate to the world around them?

It is any wonder, then, that most software programs create more problems then they solve? Or that so many user interfaces – for all the quality the code beneath them – are garbage? I have encountered individuals who feared their computers, because the machines behaved in ways that they could not understand, and demanded that users bend to their needs rather than the other way around. And so, while the computer does indeed have the potential to completely reshape the way we work with information, because almost no one in the field the vision to take it to this point, the modern computer is stagnating as a glorified electronic desk.

Of course, the program of study that I have outlined above is impractical in the unforgiving business of higher education. If we acknowledge the problem, then we must also acknowledge that some influencing factors will change more readily than others and that the threat of runaway specialization is too difficult and far reaching to propose a simple solution to it. However, we must nonetheless demand that the University cease to ignore it, and that the rich resources of this institution and of its many departments be put to the task of seeking a better way to embrace interdisciplinary study, lest the quality of a higher education itself altogether perish.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. Comments should be e-mailed to comments@tidewaterblues.com More of his opinions can be found at www.tidewaterblues.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.