Synthesizers will win the battle for academia

Originally published in the Stanford Weekly as part of a column series known as Academe’s Vanguard that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

Choosing a major used to be a relatively simple proposition. In the 12th century, the University of Paris had four faculties - law, medicine, arts and theology. They must have done something right, since these are the same disciplines that make an appearance here at Stanford (with a couple of additions over the years).

Those original four lasted for centuries, gradually expanding as new forms of scholarship emerged - engineering and social sciences, for instance. There was a slow accumulation of disciplines - a trickle that has seemed to become a flood in recent memory. Some universities now offer hundreds of majors. Stanford has crept past three digits as well, including both undergraduate and graduate programs.

This reflects a broad trend at Stanford and in American society - the forceful push toward greater levels of specialization. The common wisdom is that one cannot letter in the broad liberal arts without serious long-term economic consequences when others are focusing on tightly-defined specialties. That wisdom is false. I argue that a very different trend is emerging - and students can be at the forefront.

This problem of over-specialization is not exclusive to the humanities. Further specialization is happening across the university. At one point, a Computer Science degree was the end goal - a broad understanding of a relatively compact field. But a major revamp later, the program is now comprised of specialty tracks - seven of them in fact. To be fair, one does not have to be specialized - there is always the “unspecialized” track for those poor souls.

Specialization is good. I am reminded of the adage “when you are one in a million in China, there are a thousand people just like you.” But there is an inherent danger of becoming overspecialized. The reason is simple: the more specialized one is, the less ability there is to communicate that knowledge to non-specialists. Without overlap of knowledge, there cannot be communication (as an experiment, place a theoretical math major and an art history into the same room and have them talk about their work. Does each understand the other?)

Returning to the discussion of academic disciplines, has the break up of disciplines into finer and finer subfields (and all new disciplines!) helped to solve the most complex problems facing humanity? The answer is no, because the finer these fields become, the harder it is for them to relate to one another, limiting their utility. I am reminded of a position I held at a startup company in Silicon Valley in which I was hired to be the translator between the database developers and the web designers. The translator. The two sides were gifted in their respective specialties, but they had little ability to communicate with each other. It did the project no favors.

These divisions seem to be a common trend throughout academia, at a time when our understanding greatly requires the use of interdisciplinary talents. Try solving a societal problem - say AIDS in Africa - without the use of at least five disciplines. Now imagine if these fields could not speak to one another.

We will all be specialists - its the natural order of things. But the world also needs what Thomas L. Friedman calls the Great Synthesizers, people who specialize in interacting between disciplines and ideas. How many firms, companies and non-profits need the world’s top expert in any one tiny field? Not many.

Of course, there is a counter-argument here, the one that has pushed so much overspecialization. A person is not employed by twelve companies, but one. Thus, the further specialized one person is, the easier it is to be employed by that one company. Exotic skills means better employment opportunities and higher salaries.

That appears to be sound logic, but it is met with the difficult fact that few of us graduating now will work for a single employer our entire lives. Maintaining a high level of income requires adaptability - not necessarily unique skills. It is actually the synthesizers that will do better in the coming years - those who can interact in the complex world that becoming better understood with each passing year.

Take a look at medicine and economics. Medicine seems comparatively quaint even just a decade or two ago. But as a report co-chaired by former Stanford dean Sharon Long noted a few weeks ago, medicine will require a very different skill set in the future: “Scientific competencies should embrace recent advances in the foundational sciences that emphasize the increasingly close relationship of the physical and mathematical sciences to the practice of medicine.” In other words, translational medicine (an apt term) and fields like biocomputation will be the next wave in medical advances. Medicine will no longer be just about biology, but about a whole web of connections with fields across the university

Even the traditional social sciences are changing dramatically. Economics has been a field of tremendous change over the last few years as the use of fMRI has created new questions in the understanding of human rationality. Neuroeconomics is a novel field - but rather than a sub-discipline, it has transcended the social sciences to combine two together.

These two examples underlie the great counter-trend of the last decade - disciplines are moving against their history and actually reconnecting.

As students, we have the biggest advantage in this coming change. We are not beholden to our specialties yet. We have the tabula rasa necessary to understand these changes.

Stanford is a particularly strong school to get an interdisciplinary education. But no one will connect the knowledges of the disciplines together. As students, it is our responsibility to do so by remaining wide open to the possibilities of the future.

There is an ongoing debate surrounding the consilience of knowledge, that all of the fields that seem so separate now are actually interrelated at a fundamental level - one informing the other from molecules to cells to neurology to individuals to communities and out to societies.

We students do not need to settle for one paradigm, we need to demand to see as many of them as possible. I truly believe that getting the widest education possible is the only way to make a true impact in this world. Consider it the liberal arts of the 21st century - engineering, sciences, social sciences and humanities working together in one grand web of knowledge, each informing the others. Maybe the University of Paris got it right. Freely quoting Bill Gates, four disciplines should be enough for anybody.