Step on the gas on interdisciplinary academics
American biologist EO Wilson coined the word ‘consilience’ to denote the marrying of the sciences and the humanities. Indeed, futurists see a premium developing around intersectionality and an interdisciplinary approach in higher education. And, as the demand pull shows itself in students opting for, say, applied physics and sociology together, the supply-side (universities and higher education institutions, or HEIs) is evolving as well.
The fact that six IITs figure in the 20 top management education institutions in India—some rank higher than even some of those conventionally understood to be top B-schools—is evidence of this. To be sure, this is not to argue against specialist institutions, but the need for learning, say, sociology along side a specialisation in artificial intelligence is becoming far more pronounced—indeed, the Googles of the world are looking for ethicists as badly as they are looking for engineers and, if you happen to have studied both in college, you might be a shoo-in. The boundaries of what an employee of the future is expected to know is being continually pushed—without sacrificing depth.
So, a doctor will find the workplace more growth-sustaining if she has some understanding of law or hospital administration or even anthropology, and a historian or a journalist can defend against narrative-pushing (viz. the aftermath of the Rakhigarhi study findings) if they understand even basic genetics. Against such a future that awaits university graduates, learning in silos isn’t going to help.
This means the IITs’ management or humanities degree programmes becoming as sought after as its engineering ones isn’t the true goal; welcome sure, but not the final desired outcome. For true interdisciplinary learning, apart from developing centres of learning that go beyond what an HEI specialises in, the focus has to be on different centres being “in conversation” with each other—through ‘audit’ courses, through symposiums on topic that have significant intersectionality, etc. A JNU’s school of life sciences and school of social sciences can’t be just two isolated galaxies in the same universe.
Present and emerging problems—from climate change and how it impacts social equity to ethical deployment of technological ‘solutions’ to address society’s needs—will require dexterous navigation of two (or multiple) boats. While education need not always be utilitarian, the push for interdisciplinary learning needs not just education policy (a la the new National Education Policy) but also the industry. New-age industries have, of course, started demanding this of recruits, but remain a mere speck in the overall hiring picture.
And the demand is also in response to immediate issues rather than long-term needs. To that end, countries like the UK are outlining strategies to partner the private sector, with a focus on interdisciplinary education as a key determinant of national innovation prowess. In the US, government data shows a large jump in enrolment in college programmes with an interdisciplinary design; given multiple surveys in the country (as also elsewhere) show employment considerations weigh the heaviest in students’ enrolment decisions, it is likely that the jump in the US has an industry push, too. So, instead of resting on the present laurels, both HEIs and the government need to step on the gas.