Tear down the silos

Students strive to work across disciplines, but is the University hindering their ability to do so?

Students today, perhaps more then ever before, are the product of a result-oriented society.  We have grown up with standardized tests designed to quantifiably measure our learning.  Since the age of 15 weâÄôve been taking career aptitude tests to categorize our strengths and inform our career choices from the slew of options that await us.  Athletic programs once offered for the sheer enjoyment of youth have become known as âÄúfeeder programsâÄù which aim to groom young athletes for the next level of competition. This intense focus on achieving results has imbued pleasure with the drive for accomplishment, and it may be changing the very way students approach the concept of their work. 

Young people today seem to define themselves more by what they have done or hope to do than simply by what they love. 

For example, I seldom hear a conversation as simple as âÄúI love to sculpt.âÄù  More often, a student can be overheard talking about one idea they have for a specific project, saying something like, âÄúWell, IâÄôm an art major, studying painting, but I have this idea for a sculpture made entirely of words and I want it to dance somehow so that it is constantly creating new words. Oh yeah, I also write poetry.âÄù  Hold up.  You want to do what?

In a result-oriented society, it seems that ideas for specific projects have replaced passions for individual areas of study.  Further complicating our endeavors is that our ideas, by and large, have been informed by a lifetimeâÄôs experience with collaborative arts such as films and video games. Rather than dismissing the idea for the aforementioned sculpture based on its impracticalities, students seem willing to study the multiple disciplines âÄî in this case for example, plaster arts, painting, mechanics and poetry âÄî required to complete the project.

Therefore, rather than interpreting such statements as a student flailing for a lifeline in the sea of studies, I propose that it is the very pursuit of those seemingly unrelated studies that may be shifting our culture from extreme specialization to limitless diversification. 

Because we define ourselves according to personal accomplishment, and the ideas we hope to accomplish often contain a confluence of forms, I see more and more students embracing a âÄúRenaissance ManâÄù approach toward learning as they strive to single-handedly develop the skill set required to bring their specific ideas into existence.  But is the UniversityâÄôs organizational structure conducive to this polymathic approach to education?

For the student who wishes to make that sculpture, the University as it is currently organized may be effective.  The arts departments are set up in such a way that a student can, and is in fact required, to take a smattering of courses across mediums.  A student in an arts major can make it all the way to graduation without having to declare a specific focus.  In this sense, the school does a remarkable job embracing mixed media and collaborative forms. 

But what about the students who are not arts majors?  There is the catch, as many classes are available only to declared majors, or have such limited seating open to students of a different major that in a university of this size, getting to take such classes can be nearly impossible. Students are motivated to learn across disciplines, but they donâÄôt have access to that education because many departments only allow declared majors to take their courses.   

I assume structuring classes with few to no seats available for outside majors was originally done to help ensure a level of commitment and seriousness on behalf of the students who are enrolled in the course.  There is certainly validity to creating an ensemble-type environment within schools so that students fully committed to certain pursuits are surrounded by and therefore learning from equally dedicated peers.  Creating a community within an area of study can certainly elevate the level of work accomplished as students influence each other.  But those same communities could benefit exponentially by the influx of ideas that would come from a more open seating policy.  

The University could make itself more progressive and competitive if it strove to embrace mixed media and collaborative work across disciplines, especially because students already seem energized by the challenge.  Colleges could structure course offerings according to the model effectively used by the honors program where some sections are retained only for honors students while other sections of that same course maintain an open admission policy. 

The school could also do more to connect people of different areas of interest by offering a collaborative arts major.  At a time when the technology of many fields necessitates working alongside highly-specialized individuals, a collaborative arts major would allow students to develop their own unique skill set while learning how to implement structure when relying on others.

ItâÄôs ironic that the more specialized society has become, the more diverse students strive to be. Having a grasp of how to work across disciplines is valuable to a student both personally and professionally. What an incredible opportunity the University has, then, to recognize and embrace the changing approach we students are taking to education as we seek to develop ourselves beyond the artificial boundaries of disciplines.