So, I get consulted a lot these days about what we’re doing at UCL, how come our students are able successfully to study such radical combinations as Organic Chemistry, Accounting and Arabic, or Conceptual Design, Design Engineering and Inorganic Chemistry, or Law, Engineering and Environmental Economics, and so on. ‘What is the process?’,’ What are the stated outcomes?’, ‘What in the summary of the vision?’ ‘How do you define interdisciplinarity?’, ‘What are your metrics of success?’, I am asked. Some of these things I can make a go at answering but often what comes to mind in Iain McGilchrist’s discussion of the implicit vs the explicit in our modern societies.
McGilchrist has a list of things which he says should inherently remain implicit but which we have mistakenly tried to make explicit. This is part of McGilchrist’s story of how the left brain (the ’emissary’) has come – in Western Societies – to dominate the right brain (the ‘master’), to our collective loss. I can’t find his slides of this online but some examples of things that suffer from being made explicit include friendship, an appreciation of art, and sex. Too much analysis is not only useless in appreciation of such things but actually kills what it is analyzing.
How far can we apply this to education? I don’t know, but it seems to me that our age of ‘accountability’, ‘metrics’ and the like can demand of us an approach which kills when it should nurture and inspire. Too much ‘signposting’ and explicit requirements do not educate our students in such a way as to allow them to grow, create and learn what is of value.
I don’t have an answer to this conundrum . As a democrat I believe in accountability, transparency and so on. The trouble with McGilchrist’s type of argument is that it (re-)opens a door to a kind of unaccountable elitism, an aristocracy in thought, knowledge and taste which just is right because it is felt, implicitly, to be right.
So when I am asked today by another visiting university, how we measure success and how or why we allow and encourage students to study radical inter- and multi-disciplinary combinations of their own design, I will, once again, be obliged to use phrases such as ‘we allow students to find what they are interested in’, ‘we hope to inspire them by showing them possibilities’, ‘we believe in fostering a polymathic intellectual community’. I’m not sure this would satisfy most politicians or bean counters, but I believe that keeping the explicit out of education can, in many instances, give space for the imagination to flourish.