by Ashutosh Jogalekar
The crossing of disciplinary boundaries in science has brought with it a peculiar and ironic contradiction. On one hand, fields like computational biology, medical informatics and nuclear astrophysics have encouraged cross-pollination between disciplines and required the biologist to learn programming, the computer scientist to learn biology and the doctor to know statistics. On the other hand, increasing specialization has actually shored up the silos between these territories because each territory has become so dense with its own facts and ideas.
We are now supposed to be generalists, but we are generalists only in a collective sense. In an organization like a biotechnology company for instance, while the organization itself chugs along on the track of interdisciplinary understanding across departments like chemistry, biophysics and clinical investigations, the effort required for understanding all the nuts and bolts of each discipline has meant that individual scientists now have neither the time nor the inclination to actually drill down into whatever their colleagues are doing. They appreciate the importance of various fields of inquiry, but only as reservoirs into which they pipe their results, which then get piped into other reservoirs. In a metaphor evoked in a different context – the collective alienation that technology has brought upon us – by the philosopher Sherry Turkle, we are ‘alone together’.
The need to bridge disciplinary boundaries without getting tangled in the web of your own specialization has raised new challenges for education. How do we train the men and women who will stake out new frontiers tomorrow in the study of the brain, the early universe, gender studies or artificial intelligence? As old-fashioned as it sounds, to me the solution seems to go back to the age-old tradition of a classical liberal education which lays emphasis more on general thinking and skills rather than merely the acquisition of diverse specialized knowledge and techniques. In my ideal scenario, this education would emphasize a good grounding in mathematics, philosophy (including philosophy of science), basic computational thinking and statistics and literature as primary goals, with an appreciation of the rudiments of evolution and psychology or neuroscience as preferred secondary goals.
This kind of thinking was on my mind as I happened to read a piece on education and training written by a man who was generally known to have thought-provoking ideas on a variety of subjects. If there was one distinguishing characteristic in Albert Einstein, it was the quality of rebellion.