Stove-piped curricula in community colleges

One of the most unfortunate organizational issues I’ve seen in academia is the lack of a unified curriculum across the sciences and humanities in community colleges for today’s student. Much has been discussed about the hardening gulf between the humanities and technology and science. These tensions are not new—back in 1959, C.P. Snow lamented the trend in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.

For sure, technology, the sciences and healthcare are driving the jobs markets; parents and students are well aware. Those courageous enough to pursue a doctorate in English or art history know the odds of landing a job that returns a positive value proposition for their investment. Many schools have been exploring “digital humanities” as a curriculum that blends tech, literature and art—it signals an awareness that new careers and new areas of study are becoming mainstream. These new areas live in the netherworld between humanities and tech and science.

Except, they don’t.

These new areas are fast becoming the norm, and today’s students need to draw on skills in multiple domains to find rewarding vocations and to interpret the world around them. As Michael Malone notes in “How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities,” his 2012 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “Asked once what made his company special, Steve Jobs replied: ‘It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.’”

Job’s secret sauce for success is clear and it is applicable to most all domains: information and technology needs context, story and imagination for new generations to extend and enhance.

In business, stove piping refers to our natural tendencies to create isolated conduits of information. These conduits reduce cross-fertilization and build barriers for collaboration. And stovepipes leave our students exposed to narrow information silos often disconnected from the realities they live. To be fair, most academic institutions are inherently stove-piped—departments are similar to product lines in business, and product lines are usually measured on their performance in isolation of other product lines. In sophisticated business ecologies, managers understand how some business lines also leverage other products and services—it’s more an organic model acknowledging that multiple contributions create a positive synergy that benefits the whole.

Imagine how cool it would be to offer a truly blended course in, say, forensics in science, literature and medicine? Taught by a cross-domain mixed team, life and computer sciences and humanities departments, this course might kick off with a history of the scientific method, drawing, for example, on the early data analysis of Ibn al-Haytham and Kepler’s work in reasoning. Later, discussions of Poe’s detective Dupin and Doyle’s Holmes can serve as universally examples of reasoning in detective literature. Reasoning methods can lead to an overview of programming concepts. Introducing fundamentals of statistics (maybe power laws), networks and database concepts can all easily find counterparts in literature and art. Delving into contemporary popular nonfiction, such the writings of Atwal Gwande and Malcom Gladwell, can demonstrate the power of bringing together the humanities and sciences to both entertain and persuade. The possibilities are limitless, exciting and reminiscent of Jacob Bronowski’s 1973 masterful documentary The Ascent of Man. Most important, our students would be exposed to important cross-domain connections as they develop a more expansive view of today’s highly networked, technology-driven world.

We need to break up these stovepipes and really think out of the box. Community colleges play a critical role in providing fundamental skills for advanced study and careers and in shaping how students integrate into society. To these ends, we can provide students with context to create a positive, truthful worldview–one that represents and builds upon cross-cultural, multi-domain contributions to their lives.

As Michael Malone concludes:

Could the humanities rebuild the shattered bridge between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” and find a place at the heart of the modern world’s virtual institutions? We assume that this will be a century of technology. But if the competition in tech moves to this new battlefield, the edge will go to those institutions that can effectively employ imagination, metaphor, and most of all, storytelling. And not just creative writing, but every discipline in the humanities, from the classics to rhetoric to philosophy. Twenty-first-century storytelling: multimedia, mass customizable, portable and scalable, drawing upon the myths and archetypes of the ancient world, on ethics, and upon a deep understanding of human nature and even religious faith.

These comments suggest a direction that we need to explore in our curricula.