To gain a deeper understanding of our world, we must reach across disciplines.
By Amy Gutmann | In the Book of Genesis, God was not happy to observe the people of the earth laboring to build the Tower of Babel. “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language,” He said, “that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Likewise, in the medieval universities of Bologna and Paris, all knowledge in the sciences and humanities was unified under the banner of philosophy and studied in one language–Latin.
In the 19th century, universities began to classify knowledge by discipline, leading to the creation of separate departments, and scholars and students saw that it was good.
In the 20th century, individual disciplines begat their own specialized sub-disciplines and languages, and deans and faculty saw that it, too, was good.
Today, however, our increasingly complex world is filled with challenges that are beyond the reach of any single discipline or department. As I have proposed in the Penn Compact, the time has come to lower the barriers that separate departments and schools. Discipline must reach across to discipline and build bridges of common understanding and shared purpose across all 12 of Penn’s schools and throughout the campus. Only then will we be able to integrate knowledge, thereby allowing us to gain a deeper understanding of our world, to more fully appreciate our common humanity, and to solve the most important and difficult problems of our times.
As a scholar, I embrace the importance of specialization in fostering depth of knowledge as well as disciplinary rigor. As Penn’s president, I view the integration of knowledge as forming a critical path from excellence to eminence at Penn, and I know we have the inside track on getting there.
First, we have the advantage of our rich tradition in inter- and multi-disciplinary study. To cite one interdisciplinary program for undergraduates, we have Biological Basis of Behavior, taught by faculty members from the schools of Arts and Sciences, Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine. Created in 1978, BBB has been a great success, very popular among our students. For graduate and professional students, there is the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies. In all, Penn offers its undergraduate, graduate, and professional students more dual- and joint-degree programs than just about any of our peer institutions.
Second, our hubs bring students from all four undergraduate schools together to team up as writers, inventers, civic activists, and researchers. Each week at the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, for example, our University Scholars meet for lunch to present and discuss their research.
Third, Penn is taking the lead in integrating research and scholarship through important new multidisciplinary centers. Take, for example, the Penn Nano/Bio Interface Center. Funded by an $11.4 million grant last fall from the National Science Foundation, the center is bringing together researchers to study the intersection of technology and biology at the nanoscale level [“Small Technology, Big Promise,” p. 34]. The concept itself is astonishing: our researchers will work with materials thousands of times finer than a human hair. Housed in our flourishing engineering quadrangle, the new center includes researchers from 10 departments of the schools of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, and Medicine. In addition to bringing together experts in nanotechnology and the life sciences, the center will collaborate with Penn’s celebrated Center for Bioethics to lead the national discussion on the ethical aspects of nanoscale science and its potential impact on humanity.
This last point is extremely important. Although I treasure knowledge for its own sake, I also believe that we must always examine what we are doing with that knowledge—and why. Greater integration allows us to ask those questions more systematically and answer them more effectively.
No subject cries out for an integrative approach more insistently than the predicament of cities and urban areas. And no university is better positioned to integrate knowledge about cities than Penn. Our new Penn Institute for Urban Research has brought together faculty and students from all 12 schools to shape the future of urban studies and practice. The Institute also has created a Masters of Urban Spatial Analytics (MUSA) degree program, which will train graduate students in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and social spatial statistics while giving them a foundation in urban issues across multiple academic fields.
Meanwhile, Penn’s capacity to integrate knowledge was showcased during a remarkable global summit on women’s health hosted in April by the schools of Nursing and Medicine. Under the rubric “Safe Womanhood in an Unsafe World,” the conference featured guest speakers such as Dr. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights; Stephen Lewis, the U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa; and Justice Unity Dow, high-court judge of Botswana. During the conference, many Penn experts in health, human rights, law, and education exchanged ideas about some of the most pressing concerns today in women’s health and the societal context in which they must be addressed.
Ultimately, fostering collaborative teaching and research across multiple disciplines at Penn will require bold leaps of imagination that we have begun to take. In February, we announced an anonymous $10 million gift to support Penn Integrates Knowledge, our initiative to recruit eminent scholars whose teaching, research, and in some cases practice fuse multiple disciplines [“Gazetteer,” p. 23]. Each of these scholars will have joint appointments in two schools, which will empower them to bridge traditional divides across the Penn campus. I could not agree more with our generous donor’s prediction that Penn Integrates Knowledge will serve as “a catalyst for transforming the University.”
The initiative already has been an impetus to place a much greater emphasis on interdisciplinary studies under proposed changes to the College curriculum. I foresee more Penn faculty designing and teaching innovative courses that draw on several disciplinary perspectives.
More is to come. During Homecoming weekend this fall, the Faculty Senate will sponsor a public conversation with our Penn family. The program is designed both to underscore our progress in integrating knowledge and to highlight opportunities and strategies for embarking on future endeavors.
I am reasonably confident that the sight of all Penn’s various scholars working together, speaking metaphorically with “one language,” will not provoke divine wrath. After all, what could be more glorious than the creation of new and useful knowledge that leaves our students better educated and humanity better served?