Bursting the disciplinary boundaries in the humanities and the natural sciences: a modest proposal

By Adam S. Wilkins

The relationships between the humanities and the natural sciences, or rather those between their practitioners, are not always entirely easy or comfortable. At the Wissenschaftskolleg, for instance, differences in scholarly approach between the two groups are frequently noted and usually viewed with amusement but occasionally with mild irritation. None of this inhibits friendly social exchange and friendships across the academic divide but the sense that there is a divide remains. It is, I suspect, a permanent feature of the Kolleg and is detectable even in the exceptionally collegial, friendly group of this year’s (2014-2015) Fellows. In my year (2009-2010), the tensions were sharper, and we actually had two special evening meetings, organized by the Fellows themselves, to discuss whether we could improve mutual understanding and communication between the two groups. (The consensus was that the exercise had been worthwhile although it yielded no obvious changes.)

Beyond the numerically small world of the Wiko, and that of other similar institutes, there is the much larger arena of the world’s universities. There, the differences tend to play out in the more substantive matter of competition for funds between departments. For universities where funding is allocated in part according to student enrollments, departments losing students will suffer diminished financial resources. Has this process affected the relative standing and strength of humanities departments? One might have predicted, in particular, that during the recent Great Recession (whose began in 2008 and whose end is not yet in sight, especially in Europe), such competition would have been exacerbated, with humanities departments suffering disproportionately. Rob Page, the provost of Arizona State University (ASU) and a former Fellow (also in 2009-2010), however, argues in this issue of the newsletter that that did not happen at ASU; apart from declining student numbers, the humanities departments have held their own there. He presents ASU as a prototypical big American university and suggests that a similar story would hold for other universities. A survey reported in the New York Times last year largely bears him out on this [1]. Yet, more subtle forms of attrition, such as conversion of tenured positions to non-tenured ones, may be hidden by those figures. Furthermore, when one takes a longer perspective of the past five decades or so, there has clearly been a relative decline in the humanities generally, particularly in student enrollment in both undergraduate courses and graduate programs. The 1980s and 1990s, especially, were a rough time for the humanities, with closures of many language and some philosophy departments at many universities, especially in the UK, where I lived at the time. (Whether humanities departments in the US or continental Europe were comparably affected, I do not know.) Even earlier, however, in the late ‘60s and in the ‘70s, there were already signs of problems. For example, it used to be a requirement for the Ph.D. in the natural sciences, in the US, that the candidate show reading proficiency in two “foreign” languages (i.e., all languages apart from English); that requirement had been abolished at most American universities by the early 1970s. A general decline in students “majoring” in the humanities in the U.S., relative to science and various professional trainings (e.g. business schools), is a well-documented fact.

Such a shift away from the humanities marks a distinct evolution in universities and their perceived purposes. Two centuries ago, in the early 1800s, when the modern university, as we know it, was beginning to develop, a process led by Germany, the principal aim of universities was to turn out “well-educated” citizens. There was no question then that being such required immersion in the disciplines of the humanities (the very notion of the “humanities” as a group of related disciplines came into focus in that period), no matter how well versed (s)he might be in the natural sciences. By the early 20th century, that view still held though it was also clear that the expected depth and breadth of knowledge in the humanities of new graduates was less than that of a century earlier. And the situation today? The very notion of being a “well-educated” person now sounds slightly quaint. How often does one hear it as a term of praise? The principal goal today of a higher education is to provide the student with the ability to practice, and compete in, for a good job. While there is no stigma attached to knowing about areas distant from one’s intended line of work, such breadth is generally considered, at best, as an embellishment, and, at worst, something that might have subtracted valuable time from one’s pursuit of professional goals.

What should one’s attitude toward the relative decline of the humanities in the world of higher education be? One response, of course, is to play the blame game: to say that the problem lies with the failure of the scholars of the humanities to broaden their own knowledge, thereby incurring the fate of “irrelevance”, and, consequently, the indifference of students. In this line of thinking, if humanists eschew knowledge of modern science, how can they claim to deserve the attention of the wider world, increasingly dominated by findings in science and its offspring technologies? This argument was first put forth in a particularly strong form by Sir Charles P. Snow in his famous 1959 Rede Lecture, “The Two Cultures”. Snow launched an attack on those humanists who had criticized scientists for illiteracy in cultural matters as themselves equally, if not more, ignorant of (indeed “illiterate in”) modern science. (Snow’s discussion of science was itself a bit parochial; he was apparently only concerned about knowledge of physics and had nothing to say about biology or chemistry). Though he softened his position within a few years, in a book based on the original lecture, the lasting impression was of a highly combative position; five decades later, mention of his lecture was enough to raise hackles amongst humanities dons at Cambridge, as I found in raising the subject at a college dinner. Even more widely, within two or three decades, Snow’s position was widely perceived to have been unhelpful, albeit having a kernel of truth. A rather different line of attack came from the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson in 1998, in his book Consilience: the unity of knowledge, though he was less overtly critical and hostile. Despite its opening chapter, which urged the need to bridge the gap between humanists and natural scientists, his position was essentially imperialistic, an attempt to absorb the humanities within science. Specifically, his goal was to show how certain key issues that occupy humanists – human nature, values, behaviors – can be reduced to matters of neurobiology. For some reason, few humanists saw this as a particularly conciliatory form of “consilience”.

Another position that one could take is essentially the fatalistic one: that the decline of the humanities is a historic development, in effect “que sera sera”. Since neither social pressures nor simple exhortations to students are likely to lead to a renaissance of interest in the humanities, one should – in this view – simply accept the situation. After all, it is not as if humanities departments or their subjects are about to disappear and, conceivably, in light of the kind of statistics of recent years, mentioned above, it may be that a new equilibrium in funding, attention, and prestige has been reached. Yet, to the extent one can generalize about history, it seems safe to say that any apparent equilibrium proves to be short-lived, with change being the sole real constant of history. (Blink and you will miss the current seeming status quo, whatever it is.) Furthermore, to take such a quietist stance amounts to accepting that most students today will have little or no exposure to the humanities in their tertiary education. Is that really desirable?

Many people, including not just scholars in the humanities but most natural and social scientists, do not think so. Even voices in the popular press warn against such a future. In a recent article in the INYT (17/04/15), the columnist Nicholas Kristof argues strongly for the need for a humanities component in everyone’s education [2]. He cites and discusses three special assets of an education with a strong humanities component: first, an increased ability of such students to handle (and compete for) jobs that involve dealing with people (as most jobs in recognized professions do); second, the enhanced capability of individuals to develop wise policy decisions affecting society, and; three, better abilities to have fulfilling personal relationships – the humanities, in effect, develop one’s “emotional intelligence” (though he does not use this phrase). He could, however, have added a fourth reason, namely the traditional one, which relates to the third but is not identical with it: a humanities education helps develop and deepen the individual in ways that may be hard to describe and impossible to measure but which are real. This view actually used to be taken for granted but only rarely today gets a full-throated defense from anyone, perhaps because it seems vague, untethered to more tangible goals (as Kristof’s three arguments are), and, perhaps, not least in science-minded times, because it is unquantifiable. Surely, however, the worth of an idea should not depend solely on whether it is provable by measurement.

Where do all these considerations leave the matter? If simply accepting things as they are is not the most desirable option, and if exhortations to take up the humanities are bound to be ineffective, then some kind of change in the humanities, or the way they are presented, is needed. The logical one would involve changes in the ways particular subjects in the humanities, are taught. In effect, this thought comes down to a proposal for a reform of university curricula. The aim would be to burst the conventional disciplinary boundaries – boundaries that were large defined 200 years ago – to create courses that combined both humanities-based and natural sciences-based courses that did real justice to the complex reality of our contemporary world. Such curricular reform would not be mere tweakings of current curricular formats but would have the potential to dramatically change the ways in which both the humanities and natural sciences are taught at the upper undergraduate and graduate levels. This suggestion – which I will flesh out a little in a moment – is not original to me but is one that developed out of a Wiko “focus group”, organized and chaired by the late Yehuda Elkana during the 2009-2010 Wiko academic group. It involved about 10 Fellows from that year – both Rob Page and I were part of the group – along with a smaller and fluctuating group of outsiders involved with tertiary education. Our purpose was not simply to discuss and learn about the subject to satisfy our individual curiosities and interests, as in a typical Wiko discussion group, but to come up with some general policy recommendations. This aim was achieved, to a first approximation, in the form of a general position paper that we wrote toward the end of the year and which was later expanded in a book by Yehuda [3]. The ultimate goal was a slightly larger book, to be published in English in a much more widely-circulated form, but this goal was thwarted by Yehuda’s untimely death in late 2012. (Perhaps all deaths, except for people in their late 90s, are “untimely” but this one seemed particularly so to many of us, both for the loss of Yehuda as an inspiring and provocative figure and in terms of completion of our project.) Nevertheless, the core proposal is fairly simple to frame and might be of interest to many readers of this newsletter.

The first premise of the exercise was that traditional academic disciplines, both in the humanities and in the natural sciences, remain essential for teaching beginning undergraduates how to think in rigorous ways in those subject areas. No one in our study group argued against this, hence we were not suggesting that the traditional humanities’ disciplines, and the ways they are taught, be junked. The second premise, however, was that the traditional disciplinary boundaries constrict and constrain thinking in ways that inhibit the kind of thinking that will need to be brought to 21st century civilization and its problems. The basic recommendation, therefore, was that those boundaries be greatly relaxed for courses at the upper undergraduate and graduate levels, with the aim of bringing together perspectives from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, within individual courses. Such teaching would necessarily involve team-teaching with members from different departments, indeed departments in separate faculties.

Imagine, for example, a possible course on climate change, a subject of major importance for world civilization that is, by and large, only mentioned in passing in present-day university courses. In the kind of scheme we envisaged, the course would be taught by a group consisting of physicists, chemists, biologists, sociologists and economists. The aim would be to give the students a good picture not only of the full complexity of the subject but ways to think about its different aspects. That goal would thus not amount to a particular body of knowledge to be imparted but a set of questions and perspectives, which would feed the later thinking of the students as they went on in life.

Or, imagine a course titled “ ‘Personhood’: what does it mean?” Theologians, neurobiologists, ethicists, writers, and philosophers would presumably all have rather different views and a course involving discussion of all those perspectives have much interest. The goal of such a course would not be to provide an answer to the question posed in the title but to get the students to consider this issue from a multi-disciplinary perspective. On the other hand, some of the possible multi-dimensional courses this general approach could generate might have a firmer grounding in facts, rather than disparate values, such as one on epidemiology and the current threats from epidemics today. This too would require substantial contributions from several disciplines, not only – in this case – epidemiologists and biologists, but social scientists, political scientists, ethicists and philosophers.

Not all new multidisciplinary courses need have a specific focus on a contemporary “problem” such as the ones given above. The “personhood” course, for example, could involve primarily dialogue from neurobiologists and philosophers on “consciousness” without getting into matters of policy. As another example, one could envisage, for example, a highly interesting, informative course on the nature of reality (both physical and human), involving participation by philosophers, literary scholars, cosmologists and physicists. Or consider another example: a course on how different languages shape thinking in subtly different but important ways – for example, French and German. This could involve linguists, historians, sociologists, and not least teachers in the languages under discussion. If such courses involved genuine dialogue between the participating faculty members, rather than simply having them set forth their individual views, it could have tremendous value – for them, as well as for their students.

Such broadened courses, which defy contemporary disciplinary definitions, are probably being tried in a few tertiary institutions that are small and which have some freedom to experiment but my guess is that at present – five years after our focus group – the idea has gained relatively little traction, at least in terms of actual practice. Yet, I hope that it will get more. It should be clear that it would not threaten the existence of any contemporary disciplines – we stressed that the basic traditional disciplinary trainings, which require traditional courses, would be fundamental as foundations. But it would expose more students to the kinds of thinking that take place in the humanities and, I am sure, create more demand and interest in those subjects. Nor would this kind of approach leave thinking in the natural sciences untouched. It has the potential to greatly enrich those fields too and alter the perspectives of their practitioners.

It might be argued that the kind of program I have here sketched is inherently an “elite” or indeed elitist one, suitable for the best students only. In its early stages, that would probably be true. But I think that it has real potential to engage the interests of students quite widely, well beyond the upper 5%. Curiosity is the natural state of people; incuriosity is a learned condition, the product of (the wrong kind of) experience. The kinds of courses I am describing would, I believe, help reawaken interest in the world on the part of jaded students, in ways that more conventional courses often fail to. That is, of course, only a hunch on my part but I hope that the approach is developed so that, eventually, we will be able to see a) how useful it actually is and b) how broad its appeal is.

The subtitle of this article is “a modest proposal”. And it is just that (as well as not being original to me). Curricular development along the lines described would surely have to be developed initially in a relatively small number of institutions that had the freedom to try it out, places like small American liberal arts colleges, hence its beginnings would necessarily be modest. Only if it were successful, would it spread and become a major influence on higher education as a whole. Its ramifications then might be huge. But that would take time; we are talking about an evolutionary development in educational philosophy and practice that might take several decades to develop.

Yet, I think that the idea is as timely as it was when we first developed it five years ago. I believe that there is a large untapped potential, at least in free societies where discussion of ideas can take place, for growing connections between the traditional humanities and everything else, in ways that were not possible in the mid-20th century. I grew up in America in the 1950s and 1960s when the basic phenomenon of the Two Cultures, described by Snow, was a reality (whatever its sources and without blaming one group or the other). My mother and stepfather, a literary translator and a historian, respectively, almost never brought up or discussed matters of scientific interest (apart from the landing on the moon, which no one could ignore), for all their lively curiosity and general interest in the world. They viewed my and my brother’s desire to become scientists (I became a biologist, my brother a physicist) as slightly humorous and even curious. I think that their attitude was along the lines of: Why bother with the minutiae and arcana of scientific matters when the big issues relating to Human Nature are the important things to think about? In effect, our family embodied the split that Snow spoke of (though I believe I had more interest in the humanities than my parents knew or my brother shared). Yet, when she was in her 70s, my mother started developing an avid interest in science news, devouring the weekly science supplement of the NYT, and she and I began to have discussions about new scientific developments. I remember thinking that if my mother, whose intelligence was undoubted but whose earlier interest in science was nil, could develop such interests, the prospect that many other people could become intrigued by science must be fairly strong. Comparably, I have no doubt that if scientists who have had little experience of the humanities could receive more exposure to them, especially in relation to scientific issues that they care about, there would be a general boost in interest in, and involvement, with the humanities. It will be a wonderful day when C.P. Snow’s ghost can finally be laid to rest. A major reform of higher education might be an important step toward reaching that point.


  1. Lewontin, M. (2014). Humanities departments are largely spared the ax. The International New York Times, September 15, 2014, p. 10.

  2. Kristof, N. (2015). Starving for wisdom. The International New York Times, April 17, 2015.

  3. Elkana, Y. (2014). The University in the 21st Century: teaching the new enlightenment at the dawn of the digitial age. Budapest: Central European University Press.