Divisions Between Disciplines Limit Education

Liv Scott, Contributing Writer

“Think one person can change the world? So do we.”

Oberlin’s Admissions Office uses this signature slogan to attract prospective students eager to tackle the problems of society. But at Oberlin, we do not learn how to change the world. Despite students’ best efforts to create an environment of social change, neither the structure of the College nor the classes themselves facilitate building skills for fostering this needed transformation.

Throughout my life, adults have told me, “You are the generation that will fix the world.” But my academic experience has been essentially the same as my parents’ — just more expensive. How can my generation fix the world if twenty years and thousands of dollars worth of education has not given us the necessary tools?

Communication is a major complication of higher education that prevents learning how to facilitate change. Students and academics struggle to talk across disciplinary boundaries since they all use different terminology. While academia may have distinct disciplines, the world is highly interconnected. However, increasingly the “real world” is becoming clusters of those who think and talk like each other, which produces lone solutions to address problems. For example, the solution to food security becomes genetic modifications. This mono-sighted vision produces additional problems stemming from the lack of an initial holistic understanding. While a liberal arts framework may provide more room for the cross-pollination of majors within a classroom, we are still restricted by the disciplinary boundaries, rhetoric and perspective of each class.

A second problem is a perceived hierarchy of knowledge. College is becoming increasingly expensive and unattainable, yet in most cases, only those who have higher education degrees are valued for their intelligence. However, it does not take a college degree to solve world problems, and there are numerous skills that higher education does not teach, such as creativity, emotional intelligence and local knowledge. Are college degrees alone going to resolve the refugee crisis, immigration or police brutality? In most instances, it is not college-educated individuals addressing these concerns. There is equal value in knowing how to feed your family with food stamps, how to listen to someone with opposing opinions and how to foresee the changes in ecosystems by wildlife abundance. By incorporating diverse groups, rather than just privileged young people, higher education can unite people to implement holistic transformations.

If Oberlin truly wants to teach students how to change the world, it needs to address these issues. In doing so, it could truly become a leading institution in communication, creativity and problem-solving by bridging gaps between people locally and globally.

Classes should be structured around an interdisciplinary, local issue with global implications. For example, a class could explore e-waste disposal both locally and globally. Local community members could bring both historical and first-hand knowledge of disposal or generate ideas for alternatives, while building connections across generations. The course would also connect with perspectives of people who are receiving this e-waste, such as communities in China, or solutions other communities have found in handling e-waste. Thus, higher education can be used as a platform to cross-borders and hear the perspectives of many different people. The course clusters debuting next fall may be a first step in this direction, but the conversations within the clusters must incorporate various types of knowledge, thus providing space for multiple different experts and, most importantly, leave the ivory tower and engage with the world outside the classroom.

This is obviously a lofty vision that would require an entire reimagining of higher education. However, I truly believe that we can begin this change at Oberlin — but only if we initiate structural change within the College. Currently, major decisions are made primarily by the Board of Trustees, which limits the input of students, faculty, staff, administration, alumni and the Oberlin community. In order to enable the College to adapt to shifting needs of higher education, all the wisdom and experiences of these stakeholders must be valued, so each should have an equal role in decision-making. This idea has already been part of recent campus discourse as groups push for student representatives on the Board of Trustees, but instead of just a few students, we need to represent the many voices that make up Oberlin. In this way, Oberlin College would be constantly adapting to truly meet the shifting needs of the community and society as a whole.

Oberlin students are capable and eager to galvanize change in the world. If the College seeks to become the progressive institution it claims to be, it must transcend boundaries to both build students’ skills and support the global transformation.