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The term “ivory tower” is used pejoratively to indicate the perceived isolation of universities from the communities, and to refer to the perceived impracticality of what academics do.  I agree with the folk wisdom contained in the term “ivory tower”.  Academics are often cut off from the community, and don’t communicate well with them.  Ask 100 professors what they do, and most will respond with an answer that is incomprehensible to their nearest and dearest, and to most members of the community.  A friend said to me with regret that the quickest way to kill a conversation at a party is to say that he is a mathematician.

However, I find it just as worrying that academics don’t communicate well with each other.  It’s common for professors in the same department not to know what their colleagues do, and it’s sadly common for professors not to even know the names of their colleagues in the same department, let alone in other Faculties.  The ivory tower contains many small, windowless, and doorless rooms.  I think we’ve all had the experience of meeting someone we know, or who knows someone we know, in the most unlikely of places, and we often respond “It’s a small world!” It’s become a truism that there are only 6 degrees of separation between any 2 people in the world.  I think that academics have constructed their own ivory tower, and have failed ensure that the academy is a connected place.

How did this happen? As the joke goes, as one progresses from a bachelor’s to a masters to a doctoral degree, one learns more and more about less and less, until one ends up knowing everything about nothing. This statement is funny because it’s uncomfortably accurate, and we laugh to hide our discomfort.  However, I think we should feel more than discomfort that most academics study a subject so narrow that it can’t be explained to anyone except their closest colleagues in their sub-specialty.  This approach will keep us from dealing with the world’s most pressing problems.

In the medieval academy, every scholar learned all the arts, sciences, and theology. As humanity relearned to generate new knowledge, individual humans could and did learn less, and started to specialize.  Thus the academy became subdivided into smaller and smaller parts.  While humanity has gained enormous explanatory power over subjects unimaginable to our great-grandparents, we have lost sight of the reductionism built into specialization. The assumption of reductionism is that we can understand complex things by understanding their parts. Machines and designed objects can be explained as the sum of their parts, and it’s more practical to study manageable chunks of problems.  The crucial issue is most natural and human systems are more than the sum of their parts.  They have emergent properties that cannot be understood by understanding their parts, and thus the specialist approach cannot succeed.

I think most academics have fallen into the trap of studying small parts because universities and funding agencies are structured to reward those who do so. The most important and difficult problems facing society cannot be solved by subdividing them into isolated pieces, and working on those pieces in isolation.  These complex problems must be addressed by looking at the emergent properties, by studying relationships, by understanding the human and societal limitations of technologies, cultures, and behaviours, as well as understanding the underlying mechanism.

The difficult problems will require an interdisciplinary approach. The new normal is going to have to be an academic world with fewer degrees of separation, where it is normal to be connected with scholars in many disciplines, and to work together with those who have different outlooks, use different techniques or methodologies, and have different goals. People, and the governments they elect are already demanding that universities contribute to the greater good.  This will require working in interdisciplinary teams to study emergent properties of complex systems, and it will require that academics communicate to communities and their governments.

Your new online journal can play an important part in connecting academics with each other, and to the public. You can explain why we have to work together to solve important problems, the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches, and the payoff to those that support us. And you can do a better job than most academics to explain to each other, and to their nearest and dearest, why they do what they do, and why it matters. I look forward with interest and anticipation to your new venture!

With best wishes and warm regards,

Hugh

Principal,

College for Interdisciplinary Studies

University of British Columbia

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