So often these days we talk of education as a mechanical or, at best, physical process: you need to ‘tick boxes’, ‘jump through hoops’, ‘overcome barriers’, ‘grind out a result’. There seems to be little notion that in undertaking an education we are creating something in itself. At best we are…what? Beating the machine? But really your education, especially at university, should be much more like creating a work of art, a painting.
I think of this image particularly with respect to the broader, liberal arts-type degree we are offering at UCL – and with respect to what an individual, interdisciplinary education can be.
Let me take the metaphor further. Firstly you need a subject, a focus. I have chosen the painting by Titian in the main image because it actually has at least 3 major focal points. Where is your eye drawn to first in the image? This is a good metaphor for our Arts and Sciences degree. You do need a focus – your principal focus could be social sciences or even, within that, a tighter disciplinary focus of sociology or economics – but you are allowed more than one focus and to work on that in as much depth as time will allow. But note that it is not one focus or another that is the point of the painting: it is the way that they integrate to create a whole which is interesting and works as a whole.
The psychologists might call this the gestalt: the way the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and can be grasped as such. Sure, you can pick the picture apart, analyse each bit – even take your analysis down to the level of chemistry of the paints if you wish. But this does not necessarily add to your understanding or enjoyment of the painting. Or, rather, all such analysis is interesting and valuable in its own right, but the picture has an integrity and a value just as it is, in the way it has been created.
There are further analogies. Just as in composing a complex picture like this you may be required to work on one section for a while, putting to one side other parts of the work, so it can be with your university education. You may need to spend time to master some quantitative techniques in order to approach your humanities subject from a new angle or with quantitative rigour, or you may need to focus for while on learning a language so that you can return to your interest in physics and read the early papers in quantum mechanics in the original language.
This can be very demanding, intellectually; it requires you to keep on the back burner different things you have learnt in order that you can bring them together at some point – most likely in a final year project, in which you have the opportunity to write a dissertation in an area of your choosing. But we did not say interdisciplinary education was easy. We said it has the chance to be uniquely rewarding and also that it equips the best students with the sort of knowledge and approach to knowledge that is likely to serve them well (in the widest sense) in their working and non-working lives.
There is also some point in saying that an education, like a work of art, is never really perfect, never complete. There is always ‘another way it could go’, ways that it can be developed and even, maybe, opportunities missed. But that does not diminish its value. Indeed, you could say that it is characteristic of the greatest thinkers and the greatest artists from all fields, from the corporate to the academic to the artistic, that they are always hungry, always looking for the next challenge. No sooner is one work completed then there is a desire to start with the next. Again, embracing such an outlook may well bring great rewards in one’s future life.
And of course, the picture, the work of art is usually framed in some way. The frame delineates the work from what is not the work. For pictures, think classical square pieces of wood, for education, think syllabi and university disciplines. In the 21st century this notion of framing has been put under pressure in art many times, and I think it will also come under pressure in education. Who decides where the frame is, where it starts and stops?
Nevertheless, I think we continue to learn best how to frame our own thoughts and organise our learning, our education, from others, from teachers who have gone before. Maybe the frames are getting more fuzzy, or maybe the necessity for clear frames becomes even more important as we have more and more freedom to create our education from the almost infinite palette of the internet. One thing is for sure: if we do wish to see it this way, we can create our own education as a work of art, a piece that, although never completed, has a beauty, an integrity and a power of its own.