Quest University, Canada – An Approach to Interdisciplinary Education

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Dr. David J. Helfand, President, Quest University Canada:

Labor market analysts predict that university graduates today will have at least three careers—not three different jobs, but three quite distinct careers—in their working lifetimes. Why, then, should a university “education” take place in “programs” with a specific focus and culminate in a “major” defined by a departmental silo holding the prescribed knowledge of a single discipline? It is, no doubt, of some value to study a subject deeply, but should this be the approach to an undergraduate education—those precious four years when, for once in a lifetime, one is free to do nothing but learn?

We too often confuse education with training. The Latin, educare —to rear —stems from educere—to lead forth. To stride out into the world and to grow. Not to jump over hurdles, carefully spaced at equal intervals on a circumscribed track.

Now, I am all in favor of training. When I pick a surgeon, I want one who has done the operation I require a thousand times. The same with a car mechanic. And, yes, when I am looking at applications to my PhD program in astrophysics, I want potential students to have some training in the techniques of physics, computer programming, and mathematics. But most of all, I want students who are curious, who can make unexpected connections, who are passionate about learning more — who are educated, preferably in an interdisciplinary way.

Why don’t most universities work this way? Because it is hard and discomforting and time-consuming and disruptive. Most university faculty are the ultimate in specialization; they have spent ten or more years to earn a PhD, progressing along a path which inevitably leads them to learn more and more about less and less (with the obvious accompanying danger that they might end up knowing everything about nothing). Universities are structured in a manner that reinforces the worst aspects of this training, setting up narrowly focused departments to compete against each other for resources and prestige. The unsurprising result is that efforts to reach across disciplinary boundaries —to mount joint courses, start trans-disciplinary programs, foster inter-departmental research projects — are often discouraged or even punished.

At Quest University Canada, the country’s newest university, we have made a conscious effort to remove these barriers to interdisciplinary education. We have no departments, just a faculty devoted to educating (rather than training) curious and passionate undergraduates. We also have no majors.

More at What are the benefits of interdisciplinary education? | Erudito.

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