Friday, October 6, 2006

Straddling the Fence: Harvard's Take on Interdisciplinary Skill

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

One more time on the interdisciplinary skills issue.  I was looking at the Empirical Legal Studies blog, where the recent blogosphere debate on interdisciplinary skills in the legal academy appears to have started.  Professor Solum in turn proposed a set of core competencies, to which Gerry Rosenberg observed:

I’m not sure I’ve ever met Solum’s "complete legal academic."  Indeed I’m not sure such a person exists.  I have met legal academics who are quite sure they meet the criteria.  My impression is that their knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep.  That kind of foundation is incapable of supporting much academic weight.

I don't think Professor Solum was addressing how scholars ought to focus their energies.  What he was addressing was the continued vibrancy and flourish of law schools as institutions: "The alternative is the fragmentation of the legal academy into warring camps of specialists whose real loyalties lie with their home discipline. The legal academy will not flourish if we economists value only economics, philosophers only philosophy, and empricists only empirical work."  Professor Solum was addressing the flourishing of the legal academy as a scholarly institution; since I straddle the fence between academia and the practice, it's hard for me not to consider this as well in the context of teaching and the continuing relationship between a law school and its alumni.

It's serendipitous, then, that Harvard has just issued its Preliminary Report of the Task Force on General Education.  Here's what the preliminary report says about students' concentrations:

Concentrations are designed to ground students in a scholarly discipline, but less than four percent of our entering freshmen name college teaching as a career goal, and only five percent of seniors say that they intend to pursue doctoral study in the arts and sciences in the fall after graduation.  (Eighteen percent say that they plan to pursue a Ph.D. some time in the future.)  On the other hand, close to thirty percent of entering freshmen say that they plan to become a physician or lawyer, and last year, fifty-three percent of our seniors said that they were expecting to enter a professional school - business, medicine, or law.  We have tried to design a general education curriculum with these facts in mind.  The role of general education, as we conceive it, is to connect what students learn at Harvard to life beyond Harvard, and to help them understand and appreciate the complexities of the world and their role in it.  The mission of general education is not utilitarian or pre-professional.

What is the point of this general education?  To prepare graduates who will not be specialized scholars to deal with the inter-connectedness of the world:

Many of our graduates will become businesspersons, lawyers, policy-makers, educators, designers, and health care providers; all of our graduates will have to deal with, and will therefore need to understand something about, business, law, public policy, design, education, and health.  [The point is] that our students should see how the ideas, facts, and perspectives they are learning in the College come to life in real-world scenarios:  how philosophical ideas about justice and equality bear on legal decisions, how economic theory only partly explains the causes of poverty in different parts of the world, how an understanding of neuroscience translates into medical practice; how cultural and religious traditions affect debates over public policy.

I have this lingering desire to believe there is a place in the world for those who are a mile wide and an inch deep (remember, I spent most of a career as an M&A lawyer, and that's pretty much a professional pre-requisite - you need to be a corporate person, but a little bit tax, and a little bit HR, and a little bit ERISA), but perhaps they are only formally trained in business schools.  As I said earlier about the myth of the horizontal organization, somebody has to know enough about the specialties to see the issues and opportunities that lie in the gaps.  Harvard has done that for its general education; I wouldn't presume to put words in Professor Solum's mouth, but I think his vision is that law school faculty should be able to do the same.

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