Higher Learning

What are the advantages of a multi-disciplinary approach to education?
Answered by John L. Hennessy
  • John L. Hennessy

    John L. Hennessy

  1. John L. Hennessy President, Stanford University


    I think we have focused on this, really driven by two things. First of all, the realization that while we had become very good at training these long, thin people who were tall, but were very thin in terms of their disciplinary knowledge. We had not become very good in producing what Dave Kelly likes to call the T-shaped people, the people who can interact and converse with their colleagues. And what was fascinating, is I normally heard this from people like David with his design thinking methodology. I went and heard the same thing from our alumni from the Business School, that they needed to understand how to talk to lawyers on one side or technologists on another side. And so I think it became clear that with the kinds of trajectories that people were going to go through in their careers, some broadening of their perspective was becoming increasingly clear. So that was one big motivator.

    I think the other motivator for us was we felt that universities had reached a time in their evolution when they needed to play a bigger role in trying to address the enormous problems that the human family faces around the world. And that if universities didn't do it with all their reservoir of knowledge and expertise, there didn't seem to be another party on the horizon who would come to that solution. Certainly companies weren't going to try to engage in that. If anything, they've been forced to take shorter-term views of the future, given all the drive towards quarterly earnings. And governments, while they were important enablers, were not going to be the problem-solvers. They didn't have the intellectual reservoir that they needed to do that. But universities do have that intellectual reservoir.

    So it became increasingly clear to us that we needed to engage, not only traditional university research, based on single investigator and curiosity as a driver, but bringing together groups of curious people to say, "All right, let's get curious about alternative energy. Let's get curious about what we're going to do about fresh water around the world," and think about out of the box, not just the applied problem-solving end of that, but thinking about the basic science and the technology that underlies it so that we can come through with a generalizable, scalable solution that can be applied around the world.

    And I think that was the basis of what we've tried to do around the Woods Institute and the environment, around Bio-X. Bio-X was driven by a very simple observation: the biological sciences are about to infiltrate all these other disciplines – physics, engineering, psychology – and become enmeshed in a way that biology becomes a grounding science and an overlapping science for lots of these disciplines. So let's get on board with that, and let's figure out a way to get that kind of collaborative work going on where we're bringing together expert in Field Y, expert in Field X and putting them together to try to do something that they couldn't do separately.

    In my view, the collective intelligence and collaboration that goes on leads to new insights. So that can be something that's very technology oriented, bringing together a material scientist, say, and an electrical engineer to talk about a new design for solar cells that increases efficiency. It also helps you bring together people from disciplines you might never have gotten together. So you bring together people working on alternative energy, you bring together people working on energy policy and economics, and thinking about, "What can we do, whether it's cap and trade or some other policy solution, to accelerate an alternative energy future?" They have to be talking to technologists. They've got to be deeply embedded with those guys to really understand what's possible and what kinds of policy changes would help.

    And universities are conservative organizations, right? On the far side of conservative, we have the Catholic Church and governments, next over, we have universities. And they've been around for a long time. And one of the reasons they've survived, is they avoid fads and they think about the long-term future. Well, balancing that against a willingness to change and think about the structure of the university slightly differently, you have to balance the two. So we're doing an experiment. We didn't blow up departments and traditional disciplines. We've kept them. But we've added sort of another infrastructure to it to try to cement these things together, and to bring together parts of the university with the goal that in a particular area, we can make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

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