Ending the intellectual turf war

By Simon Brown / Columnist

A brutal competition is gripping higher education across the nation. While it can be exciting to watch unfold, it is still mired in bureaucratic mismanagement. Ultimately, it can consume the attention of university students and administrators, and spur them to seriously detrimental decisions. 

And no, I’m not talking about college football. 

Rather, it is the competitive relationship that exists within many scholarly communities that equally fulfills these descriptions. This competition across the intellectual gridiron, however, serves only to reinforce the needless walls dividing academic departments. And ultimately, it misleads students and the public to adopt shallow attitudes toward the value of scholarly research.  

It is not only in scholarly circles, however, that this attitude thrives. It would take an oblivious reader to open a magazine or national newspaper and miss the many articles describing how neuroscience antiquates psychology, or the editorials musing on the “relevance” of the humanities.

In all of the voluminous literature treating these topics, one common theme persists: Society, technology and the economy are changing, and scholarly research should or should not change with it.

This underlying theme equates technological and scientific advance with a necessary advance into more relevant scholarly pursuits. In this depiction, the old-fashioned scholars — usually, those in the humanities and social sciences — try to understand their subjects with the methods and instruments of a bygone era. 

But now that the situation has changed, and with it the horizon of intellectual possibility, these authors suggest that scholars in such fields find their appropriate place in the museum, rather than the classroom. 

Why, they have asked, would anyone waste time speculating from an armchair about the connection between mind and brain when fMRIs can visualize them in real time? Why would anyone consult a psychologist about a child’s mental development when we could simply consult the child’s genes? 

These claims, however, prove nothing more than gross simplifications. 

Littered with buzzwords such as “innovation,” “outdated” and “21st century,” the contributors to this theme seem to think that intellectual communities follow the same linear progression as the succession of iPod models. No one wants to hang out with the lame psychologists and philosophers, still dawdling with their iPod minis, while the popular neuroscientists and biophysicists show off their iPhone 5s.  

But somehow, despite this characterization, students continue to study “old-fashioned” fields and scholars continue to do research within their bounds. 

The reason for this difference lies in the inherently pluralistic nature of academic work. No one field can outmode another, so long as both pursue their subjects with different methods and find different conclusions. 

Academic work is less a turf war in which different scholars fight to preserve control of their own tract of subject matter and more an open conversation in which scholars can study the same subject and find different aspects interesting. 

Take, for instance, someone reading a book by Jane Austen. Originally considered in the domain of a literary scholar, neuroscientists and English scholars have now begun working together to study the recognizable patterns in brain behavior when individuals read works by the Victorian-era novelist.  

Does this mean that English literature classes will now be taught by neuroscientists? That literary scholars will exchange their tweed jackets for lab coats en masse? 

Despite the alarms of nervous humanists and ambitious scientists, this need never be the case — and for good reason. 

Literary scholars and neuroscientists may be able to study the same thing, but that doesn’t mean they have to be interested in the same things. While a neuroscientist may reach fascinating conclusions about changes in brain chemistry in a reader’s head, a literary critic would care more about the changes in the English novel as a genre. While the neuroscientist is interested in what’s going on in the head of any given reader, the literary scholar might be interested in what’s going on in the head of Jane Austen. 

And until scientists make a serious breakthrough in neuro-necromancy, that probably won’t be possible with an MRI. 

Understanding that intellectuals organize in communities not to “understand” a particular subject, but rather to search for particular answers to questions that they uniquely find interesting, can help scholars and administrators better understand what it really means to be interdisciplinary.

Along with “massive open online courses” and “experiential learning,” the term “interdisciplinary” has become a favorite in the rhetoric of university spokespeople. Though it is certainly noble for universities and agencies to fund research projects that supposedly break down academic walls, rarely is this a frequent occurence. Rather, the fundamental misunderstanding that associates scholarship with one particular subject can mislead universities and foundations to consider interdisciplinary anything that places scholars associated with one subject on the ‘turf’ of another. 

A more sophisticated and less adversarial notion of interdisciplinarity will require several unique perspectives with diverse interests working together to define. 

What a novel concept. 

Write Simon at [email protected].