Print Edition - 2019-03-06  |  The Guardian

The world is in a bad way

  • A new ‘interdisciplinary university’ offering a polymath education could be a good idea
- TOM WHYMAN

Mar 6, 2019-

At a time when every week’s weird weather seems to bring fresh news of how manmade climate change could destroy everything we know and love, it seems almost trite to point out that the challenges we face as a society are vast and complex. Clearly, the next generation will need to be equipped to tackle them: but assuming that “tackling them” means “preventing them” (as opposed to, say, “riding out the catastrophe with a mixture of improvised weaponry and martial-arts skills”) it is unclear where, if anywhere, they might acquire the relevant skills.

In the UK at least, higher education is overly focused on narrow degree courses, where institutional prestige often trumps the value of what students are taught. This reflects an academic research community in which various perverse incentives have created a climate where the arts and humanities have become overspecialised, often to the point of irrelevance, and where the whole integrity of the social and life sciences is threatened by the replication crisis.

In theory, then, it seems we ought to welcome the announcement by Ed Fidoe, a former manager at consulting firm McKinsey, that he intends to found a new “interdisciplinary university”, which will aim at providing a “polymath” education—precisely what is needed to equip students to confront the complex problems we must most urgently tackle today.

But can Fidoe’s London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) really provide what we need? When, pending approval from the Office for Students and the location of a campus site, the LIS opens its doors in September 2020, it will admit what it hopes will be 120 students to just a single degree course: a bachelor of arts and sciences which will encourage learning “through real-world challenges”, allowing students to gain “practical experience” while studying a curriculum shaped not only by “top academics” but also “industry experts”.

The LIS seems especially proud of its ability to offer work placements with a number of “employer partners”, including Virgin and the Metropolitan Police. These partners are much more active than they would typically be in a traditional university, with representatives comprising part of the LIS advisory group. “Our employer partners,” its website tells us, also “contribute to the design of our curriculum”, helping to provide a number of the “real-world problems” which students will learn by solving—for instance, the Met has asked the LIS to take on knife crime.

But there is a big problem here: because issues such as knife crime—or, of course, climate change—are first and foremost political problems. And the fact is that lasting solutions to these problems will almost certainly require a radical rethinking of the ways in which we organise our economy and society. It is therefore hard to see how inviting corporate (or indeed, police) interests to participate so directly in our higher education system is likely to help. For obvious reasons, these interests are likely to prove resistant to what changes may prove necessary: our best young minds need to be ready to look them in the eye, to meet their intractability with incisive criticism and committed activism, not rely on them to offer them a job.

This helps us see that today a truly polymath education would not be about fostering the skills employers demand: it would aim to provide students with a political education. The world that students exist in is one shaped by particular interests and structured according to particular systems, and, depending on their background, these students will be placed in that world in a specific way. The production of knowledge is not just about considering the world as a detached, theoretical object of study: inevitably, it is about judging it morally. An education that combines expertise in the arts and humanities with literacy in science and technology certainly, therefore, seems promising—but if this education is detached from a consideration of the real interests that shape both our world and our knowledge of it, it risks producing mere generalists, who think in ways that are not broad and interconnected but glib and superficial.

Inviting external partners to participate in curriculum design might also help—but not if these partners are confined to the already powerful. A polymath education should instead think about combining forces with activist groups such as SWARM—the sex worker advocacy organisation formerly known as the Sex Worker Open University, which counts among its members Molly Smith and Juno Mac, authors of one of the best interdisciplinary political books in recent years. These are people from whom any student could learn.

The world is in a very bad way at the moment. The seriousness of this situation demands that students be able to participate in it effectively—not only effectively enough to be given a job, but well enough to transform it for the better.

Published: 06-03-2019 09:59

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