Am I in a silo?

Whole grain education: what a fresh idea.

Peggy Berkowitz over at University Affairs reports on an interesting talk given recently by Louis Menand, whose talk, she characterized, in part, as follows:

He said the natural sciences have been able to reconfigure themselves to overcome the “silo” problem of different disciplines; but for a variety of reasons, the humanities haven’t. He pointed to the need for reform, acknowledging that “we’re right when we say that many reformers are not educational. But that is all the more reason for academics to take the task upon themselves to reform.”

Berkowitz doesn’t explain what Menand means by “the silo problem” because she doesn’t have to. Everyone in the university game these days has heard our institutions described as silos in one way or another.

The silo problem, as people like Menand would have it, is this: universities have always been arranged by discipline, where one group of scholars researches and teaches in one discipline and another group researches and teaches in another and so on. Like grain silos on a farm, the stuff is all there, but it never mingles or touches. Siloed as we are, university professors never think about anything outside their own disciplines and teach students only one thing at a time. So neither profs nor students ever have the chance to study the wonderful complexities of the world.

I have several problems with this metaphor. First, there is a whiff of snobbery about it. Siloes are so very working class, you see, and one can’t help but wonder whether subconsciously the anti-silo crowd has chosen this metaphor thinking that no intellectual wants to act like a (gasp) farmer. They could have called it the office-tower problem or the guru-on-the-mountain problem, but no . . .

Second, as it happens, silos are actually very useful devices because grains really do need to be kept apart from other grains so that they can be sold accurately for what they are. Some idealistic farmer might get it into his head that the old silo system is out-of-date, and why shouldn’t the buckwheat mix with the sorghum and the millet? Let’s break down the artificial constructs of the agricultural revolution, he says, and embrace inter-grainiarity! Sounds fun, but it wouldn’t work. Because the baker making a loaf of rye bread needs to know his rye flour is actually rye. The brewer needs to know her hops are hops and so on. Silos exist for reasons.

University disciplines exist for reasons, too. And it’s this: this stuff is complicated. Mastering even a narrow topic of intellectual inquiry requires years and years of painstaking study just to get going. Try writing 200 pages of original analysis of Shakespeare, and you’ll see what I mean. Seriously, get yourself up to speed on the current debate over the causes of the First World War, or Medieval ideas about the philosophical reality of evil, or how to locate exo-planets and you’ll see what I mean. At the highest levels of expertise, people must, as a practical necessity, specialize if they are going to do the best possible work. That’s why medical practitioners are trained in particular areas. We could have one big category called “Health Expertise” and you could just go to a health expert whatever your ailment. But such a person would not really be an expert. He’d be a dabbler. It’s much better to have your heart surgery performed by someone specialized in cardiac medicine and have your foot looked at by a podiatrist. Even if the heart surgeon and podiatrist never see each other.

Still, wouldn’t some interdisciplinarity be good? Shouldn’t students be taught to see that literature and science and all that stuff are not really separate things? Of course they should. Which is why we do it already.

Which brings me to the third objection I have to the silo metaphor. It’s wrong. Although academics do arrange themselves by discipline at most universities (there are a few exceptions), we are not locked in our offices, nor in or minds. When I teach literature, for example, part of what I teach is the cultural context of everything else that goes into producing literature. My classes on Milton, for example, bring in political history as well as theology. I use the the Pythagorean Theorem to teach Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.”

So too for research. My first book dealt with the way Shakespeare’s plays respond to the political arguments over legal medical practice in the sixteenth century. Maybe dull for the average reader, but my point is that my own research connects literature with medicine, history, law, and politics. And this is not unusual in my discipline, nor, from what I can tell, in other disciplines either. Philosophers work with mathematicians, physicists with biologists, and so on.  Recently, I’ve been working with a colleague in our Sports and Human Kinetics program to develop a new course called The Literature of Sport. I’ve even been discussing working on a research project with a chemist about how the periodic table has been interpreted.

Education critics love to invent problems that they think they can solve. Universities don’t use new technologies!  University courses are nothing but lecture! Students aren’t taught critical thinking! They are all based on half-truths, exaggerations, or outright falsehoods. But it gets them consulting deals and book contracts and, yes, invited to talks.

And as for the silo problem? It’s nothing but a straw man.

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