it’s not on to play one discipline off against another

The topic of an ad for a university not that far to the north of where I live popped up in casual conversation today. It was – IMHO – a pretty awful advert, with the implication that science doesn’t change so do an arts degree if you want to think differently. I mean, yuck.

But what was just as bad, to me and to others in the conversation, was some of the responses: “A BA? Do you want fries with that?” It wasn’t a particular funny joke when it first came out years ago & I don’t think it’s aged well: it’s not really any better than the ad we were complaining about.

To be honest, I think the “fries with that” comment is a throwaway line that shows a lack of thought about &/or understanding of what’s involved in an arts or social sciences degree, and where those degrees can take their graduates. Te Pōkai Tara NZ Universities has some tools on their website that use information from the 2018 Census to show where graduates from various degree programs end up (and what they were earning in those jobs). There’s some background to the tools here, & you can look up employment outcomes by field of study.

But wait, there’s more. It’s worth remembering that

  • Science is a creative endeavour, and as this brief blog post points out, “[a] great deal of creativity is required to make scientific breakthroughs, and art is just as often an expression of (or a product of) scientific knowledge.” In fact, art is a tool that can be used to communicate about science, and I remember attending a symposium presentation on the use of visual art projects to enable students to explore what biology meant to them.
  • These days undergraduate degrees (with the exception of highly specialised programs) give students the opportunity to take a range of subjects outside their major: someone with a science major may also have a minor in economics, or geography, or education, or… Of course minors can also come from complementary sciences, but many students welcome the opportunity to gain a broader perspective on the world than might be provided by a singular science focus. Science students can – & I believe they should – take papers about critical thinking¹, philosophy &/or history of science, ethics, and communication: papers that may often be delivered in an Arts Faculty but which provide additional depth & breadth to a science degree.
  • And as this article in the Conversation (Miller & White, 2013) argues, there’s a lot of value in such combined programs of study, which can – if designed properly – let students develop valuable transdisciplinary skills². However, Miller & White also note that to get there we need “[an] innovative approach to curriculum design [that]would involve experts from various fields. They would collaborate to design a curricula space where students actively connect and extend the diverse aspects of their education.” I’m not sure that we’re quite there yet, in terms of the ability to make those active connections, but it does mean that we really should not be playing individual disciplines against each other –

After all, while few would doubt the value of disciplined thinking, isn’t our goal also to prepare students for lifelong learning in an undisciplined world?



¹ a well-designed BA (or BSocSc) degree gives its graduates skills in critical and analytical thinking; these are not attributes restricted to those in the sciences, and can be applied in all walks of life. (It’s also entirely possible to take a science subject as a second major in a BA…)

² where “Transdisciplinarity is characterised by knowledge production that is problem-focused, draws knowledge and methods flexibly from diverse sources, involves collaboration between academic disciplines and other parts of society, and produces knowledge that is ‘socially robust’” (Russell, Dolnicar & Ayoub, 2008).