Scott Carlson

Scott Carlson is a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education who explores where higher education is headed. Follow him on Twitter @carlsonics or write him at scott.carlson@chronicle.com.

March 26, 2020

How the Coronavirus Tests Higher Ed’s Disciplinary Fault Lines

When Covid-19 begins to subside, America’s colleges will have grappled with urgent financial and logistical challenges that the coronavirus set in motion. But its pandemic spread also raises deeper questions about the organizing principles of academe itself. How can universities be better structured to respond to sprawling global catastrophes like the coronavirus? How can they embrace and teach resilience?

We’ve been here a few times over the past 20 years. Covid-19 brings to mind other major disruptive events since 2000, including the September 11 terrorist attacks, the 2008 recession, and the slow-moving climate-change crisis, which adds intensity to the superstorms and incinerating droughts that batter the country, year after year.

The coronavirus pandemic, like many of those challenges, has origins in a tangled array of disciplines: microbiology, ecology, public health, sociology, religion, political science, business, international relations, and more.

But higher education has long been a place where those disciplines stand apart, even as they converge and combine in the real world. Interdisciplinarity and systems thinking have been lauded as curricular aspirations at some institutions, but on the whole, academe still rewards specialists with tenure and titles — and it often denigrates generalists.

That’s not the kind of education we’ll need for the rest of the century, says Mark C. Taylor, a professor of religion at Columbia University. Taylor has long been interested in “nonequilibrium positive feedback networks” — events, like climate change or the collapse of the financial markets, that can accelerate, leading to trouble that spirals out into other realms. Increasingly, he says, as we have moved from “a world of walls to a world of webs,” those networks govern our biological, social, economic, and cultural systems.

“The butterfly effect — that’s what we live in,” says Taylor. “What is happening now, I think, is not that the world has changed. It’s that people are being forced to acknowledge the way in which the world has changed.”

Taylor’s interest in networks and supply chains is not merely theoretical: Because he is a diabetic, his life depends on a reliable supply of insulin and other medical components from distant manufacturers. If those supply chains break down — as they nearly did when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, where some components were made — Taylor will die within days.

In a 2009 New York Times essay, and in a follow-up book called Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, Taylor proposed changing higher education to better meet the needs of this interconnected world. Throw out discrete disciplines and majors, he said, and replace them with interdisciplinary “zones of inquiry” focused on the world’s big challenges, such as access to water.

His vision wasn’t warmly received by some colleagues. “People laughed in my face,” Taylor says. “I was in a big meeting at Columbia where they actually mocked it.” Ironically, he notes, Columbia announced last year that 2020 would be the university’s interdisciplinary “Year of Water” — yet it seems to be an initiative that exists mostly outside of the curriculum, taking the form of lectures and events.

Missed — and Future — Opportunities

Ten years ago, however, Taylor’s message resonated with higher education’s growing sustainability movement. Sustainability has long been associated with resilience and systems, and in the early days of the movement, participants debated where they should concentrate their efforts. Many activists pushed to include sustainability in the curriculum, and a number of colleges started programs on that topic or rejiggered their existing courses to focus on environmental challenges and resilience in response to student demand.

But others said that some aspects of the sustainability agenda — like a focus on environmental justice or socioeconomic status — were too politically dicey. The movement, those people said, should focus on what institutions could change in their operations. On many campuses, sustainability directors and advocates held positions in facilities departments; they focused more on solar panels, wind generators, water-saving devices, and recycling programs than they did on the curriculum.

“The structure of higher ed has been slow to change in response to sort of this realization that these problems require more than a single discipline,” says Julian Dautremont, director of programs for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. “Even among folks who realize that the disciplines are not necessarily the most appropriate unit, the alternative has been harder to envision and implement because people are hired on tenure lines, according to a discipline, and breaking out of that is a much harder process than putting solar panels on the roof or whatever.”

Maybe Covid-19 will lead to a reset. David J. Staley, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, imagines new kinds of colleges in his book Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education. He thinks the crisis might lead students and employers to call for an education that crosses disciplines.

“Because of the demands of specialization, universities don’t teach and don’t encourage systems thinking,” he says. Perhaps academe should start to make room for what Staley calls the “21st-century polymath.”

“There’s no room right now in universities for polymaths,” he says. “But I wonder if polymaths — who think systematically and bridge all kinds of disciplines — might not see more demand.” Staley sees a possibility for some institutions to create a whole new market in higher education in interdisciplinary learning.

But any broad-thinking academic is going to have to navigate the increasingly polarized nature of hot-button issues — and in a divided era, that’s a difficult place to go. While the coronavirus pandemic is rooted in climate, ecology, and microbiology, much of the social and economic fallout has been a result of a breakdown in our civic structures. In the United States, in particular, many of our persistent troubles over the past 20 years have been self-inflicted, a result of presidential administrations in denial, a government hobbled by years of cuts, and a populace bitterly divided.

“The upshot is that we missed the point: Everything environmental is ultimately political,” says David W. Orr, a professor emeritus of environmental studies at Oberlin College and a founding father of the sustainability movement in higher education. In the past few years, his work has shifted to politics, with a new book, Democracy Unchained, and a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering conversation about politics and the public.

Problems like the coronavirus, climate change, and class conflict will require a response from the government and its institutions — and it has to include the public in that process, too, or the solution could lead to bigger problems.

“You could,” Orr says, “have a solar-powered, sustainable, resilient, hyperefficient, fascist society.”

© The Chronicle of Higher Education. This article originally appeared on chronicle.com on March 24, 2020 and is reprinted here with permission.