Leader: Sharing a banquet of knowledge

There is no single recipe for successful cross-disciplinary centres. Lunch, however, seems to be an essential ingredient

March 20, 2008

In the early months of Charles II's reign, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and a few other intellectuals and amateur scientists got together for weekly discussions to share ideas and advance the frontiers of knowledge. They were gentlemen scholars with an interest in subjecting the world around them to experimentation, be it astronomy or alchemy. The topics were as eclectic as the group: "A Demonstration of the Violation of a Pendulum in a Cycloid"; "An Experimental History of Colours"; "Concerning Smutt in Corne"; "Some Physico-theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection". Their informal ruminations, doubtless made in comfortable surroundings and accompanied by suitable refreshment, grew into the very formal Royal Society.

Renaissance men and women are a bit thin on the ground these days. Most educated types acquire their learning in ordered parallel lines and generally work towards goals that lie at the end of unsurprising trajectories. Modern education systems are not geared to the nurturing of polymaths. Scholars are given a thorough grounding in a distinct discipline that has developed rules, exemplars and methodologies over many years. Master the particular before you range and collaborate with the general, appears to be the injunction.

Interdisciplinarity has always been on the menu of course, but has often lingered at the margins - the forced amalgamation of unproductive courses and departments masquerading as something grander, for instance. It has been hard for academics with genuine interests across subject boundaries to present themselves as equally credible in more than one field when the weight of tradition favours the narrow at the expense of the broad. Even with sympathetic colleagues and referees, funding streams invariably flowed along well-worn grooves. Indeed, one of the most telling criticisms of the late research assessment exercise was that it failed to promote innovative cross-border incursions.

Times and fashions change. This week the University of Aberdeen announced that it was to encourage a more catholic approach to undergraduate study, advising scientists to leaven their studies with the humanities and vice versa. At the postgraduate and academic level, institutes of advanced study of the kind pioneered by Princeton University in the 1930s are flourishing in the UK. Resident and visiting scholars contribute their specialist knowledge to a general endeavour, thereby standing on the foundations of traditional disciplines rather than in opposition to them.

It isn't hard to see why universities are keen on advanced cross-disciplinary institutes. They can attack issues that straddle subjects from a variety of fronts; they promote institutional cohesion and can foster wider community and international involvement. Above all, the centres give scholars time to think and to allow their thinking to be interrogated from novel angles. This can produce genuine creative friction as philosophers knock against engineers, or historians crash into medics.

This is excellent stuff and encourages staff from different faculties to associate with each other academically - something that universities have not always been good at. While there seems to be no defined recipe for fruitful cross-pollination, meetings over coffee or shared meals appear to be essential. Contemporary scholars may be less inclined to range as widely intellectually as Messrs Boyle and Wren, but they could profitably emulate the social interactions that spawned the first learned societies. It would be ironic, although historically rather symmetrical, if the genesis of future great ideas owed more to the consequences of lunch than to metrics.


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