I don’t really eat lunch by myself much anymore. For the past month or so, I’ve been having a series of working lunches with all sorts of people – heads of school, directors of undergraduate teaching and learning, leaders of some of the research themes, our Trinity Education Project Fellows and basically anyone else I can lure into my office for a sandwich – to talk about the Trinity Education Project. It’s been enlightening.
At the beginning of this term, when I first began talking to people about changing our curriculum, there were quite a few concerns about what was sometimes seen as a “watering down” of the curriculum. I sometimes heard the term “Americanisation” of the curriculum (although if “Americanisation” means Stanford University or Yale University, sign me up). Usually what was meant was that students who had come to Trinity to study physics, or history, or economics or philosophy were going to have to take modules that had nothing to do with those subjects when, really, their time would be better spent in the library or the lab.
When I first began talking to people about changing our curriculum, there were quite a few concerns about what was sometimes seen as a “watering down” of the curriculum
However, as those conversations progressed and became more interesting, it was apparent that anyone who was at all reflective about their discipline realised no field of study exists in a bubble. So, let’s take the hypothetical example of physics (purely because it might seem, from the outside, to be one of the most self-contained and pure of disciplines, compared to, say, sociology or geography). Physics does not just have a history, it has histories. There are the histories of the individuals who have pushed the discipline forward, but there are also the historical conditions in which those individuals worked. Outside the lab, there were wars, migrations of people, flows of wealth and political power and these things shaped both what it was possible for physicists to do and what they were encouraged to do. By the same token, the amazing breakthroughs that are being made now in nanoscience (not least in Trinity) are not purely coincidental in an age in which the ways in which we live, learn and love are shaped by forms of technology whose impact on our lives is proportionate to how small, and hence intimate, they are.
So, in the end, it does make sense for a science student to know something about the history of science, if only to be able to reflect ethically and intelligently on what they are doing in the lab. By the same token, there is value in a history, or an economics or philosophy student being at least familiar with the concepts in science that today are changing what it is to be a person and to live in the world. There is a link between the computer science concept of “hashing” (ask a computer scientist) and Donald Trump’s ability to use Twitter to bypass mainstream media. It might not be a simple or an obvious link, but then, who said that a Trinity education was about the obvious or the simple?
The conversations to make these connections are underway now around the campus. When the new Trinity Education Project programme syllabi roll out in 2018, students who enter that year will be able to take (usually in their Senior Freshman or Junior Sophister years) either “approved modules” (which will be agreed between programmes) or Trinity electives, which will be open to all students. The conversations on what shape these modules might take have already started. Last week, I had a working lunch with a group of people involved with the TCD Research Themes, and fascinating ideas were already starting to emerge as to how, neuroscience, for instance, might link to music (there is no music without minds, a colleague pointed out).
Of course, a strong disciplinary formation is important. But so too is the opportunity to pursue our respective disciplines from a completely different perspective
Of course, a strong disciplinary formation is important. But so too is the opportunity to pursue our respective disciplines from a completely different perspective. As we start to find these unexpected conjunctions, the views of students will be invaluable. So, take a moment and ask yourself: in your current course, what would you have liked to know more about. If you are studying English, for instance, did you ever wish that you knew a bit more about philosophy. If you are studying music, did you wish you knew a bit more about some of the more elegant structures of mathematics? Would it be helpful for an engineer to know a bit about economics? The perspective of students who are in the midst of their degrees is important here. It will be one of the best ways in which we will be able to find and enable the unexpected and the enlightening.
So, please send your thoughts (outside the box, preferably) to: [email protected]
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep talking to people. And, no, I don’t miss my nice quiet lunches at my desk.