I have a guilty pleasure - a thing for novels involving religious intrigue, you know the kind: Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus and the true first pope kind of thing. Not only does this kind of fiction make for great summer reading, but the genre usually introduces us to a historical character (DaVinci, Dante, Galileo to name a few) charged with keeping the Catholic Church's secrets. And through their stories, we are reminded of the remarkable toolkit such men had to help them navigate life. These safe-keepers were "Renaissance Men." They were poets, painters, astronomers, philosophers, musicians and mathematicians in one. What a foreign concept! After all men and women are rarely afforded such knowledge in the 21st century.
Today's colleges and universities, even those built on the foundation of liberal arts, are designed to educate masters in their fields. Not only are students often asked to major in a particular discipline but general education is presented like a buffet menu: pick any two.
I think back on my own undergraduate education when I met my science requirement with a Physical Anthropology course. I adored the class and my instructor, but wondered, "What's the point? What does this have to do with my actual interests and goals?"
If only someone had helped me make a connection. Perhaps, instead of sitting in this New York coffee shop, I'd be off the coast of Madagascar leading an excavation. After all 20 years later, I discovered a genuine passion for the role of the performing arts in ancient and/or tribal religion. What an awesome thing to have uncovered as a twenty-year old theatre major.
Don't get me wrong, there are folks out there, folks with more letters after their names than me, that aim to re-introduce the renaissance man (and woman) into our working world. A few years ago I met a faculty member, an astronomer by trade, who created a science liberal arts course that was designed to marry the disciplines on his college campus. The course tackled questions such as , "How are astronomy, physics, philosophy and religion intertwined?" "How does a keen understanding of science help inform the artist's work; and vice versa?"
The course took years to make its way into the curriculum and was then balked by biology, chemistry and premed students (and in some cases their faculty mentors and advisors). After all these students were taking enough science as it was and didn't have time to take what I heard called "philosopher's physics".
But is there not more value in witnessing the marriage of seemingly unique disciplines than to have a base understanding of a particular subject? After all your every day undergraduate who asks, "What the hell does Latin have to do with my future as an account manager?" has a point. And it's the job of the college educator (faculty, advisors, resident assistants - everyone - to help students connect the dots.) Even so, their jobs would be a hell of a lot easier if the relationships between the disciplines and between careers and a liberal arts education were explicit.