Oberlin Should Pioneer Network Studies

 The recent One Oberlin report states that for Oberlin to flourish, it must “pioneer a new, more relevant curriculum and educational experience for our 21st-century students.” 

To this end, Oberlin should seriously consider the academic field of Network Studies. It is not yet prevalent in higher education, but Oberlin could both lead and benefit from its development.

Like any concentration, Network Studies would adhere to the traditional liberal arts disciplines, but engage with them from a unique perspective. The core content would, of course, include the impact of networks in society; recent advances in network science, theory, and technology; as well as address the constantly-evolving network structures in our world and the cumulative increase of their impacts. 

However, Network Studies is a fundamentally interdisciplinary field that goes far beyond technology. Networks touch on every level of social phenomena, from quantum physics to protein networks; they are fundamental to all complex systems, and hence to all life. They precede technology and human intelligence, and, from both an ontological and an epistemological perspective, they relate to all fields, fully embracing the humanities and affirming their mutual relevance to the sciences.

Sample subjects of study could range as widely as the liberal arts themselves: from the Human Connectome Project to the novel as a network; from complexity theory to systems chemistry; from the network neuroscience model of intelligence to ethnomusicology and the cognitive science of improvisation. An English major might pursue a network reading of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” in collaboration with a Peace and Conflict Studies student’s project on psychological resilience in military veterans. A neuroscience major could study the musical frameworks of contemplative traditions.

An eclectic yet short reading list, in no way definitive or prescriptive, might include: Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, David Bohm’s On Dialogue, Olaf Sporns’ Networks of the Brain, and James Austin’s Chase, Chance, and Creativity. 

Core academic values of a Network Studies program should include: creativity, incorporating interdisciplinary innovation, design, development, insight, and change; responsibility, incorporating harm reduction, sustainability, access, restoration, and social justice; urgency, prioritizing focus on time-critical contexts and applications; and agency, a full recognition of the depth and diversity of human experience, capacity, and empowerment.

Networks continue to aid in cutting-edge research across all academic disciplines. Immense challenges including climate change, habitat loss, food production, and mass migration will require network-oriented solutions. Just keeping up with current research requires increasing knowledge of network principles. Network Studies would clearly support the collaborative and interdisciplinary aims stated in the One Oberlin report — both between the Conservatory and the College, as well as among academic departments. 

Perhaps more importantly, networks embody values and sustain traditions that are essential to cultural progress and resilience. A thoughtful and rigorous approach to their study can offer a rich fabric for Oberlin’s founding principles of excellence and social responsibility. Creating the sustainable, equitable, restorative networks of the future will require leadership and deep study. Network Studies can strengthen the academic ties between the humanities and the sciences and move all of these disciplines beyond narrow technological biases. It is creative in nature, hence ideally suited for the undergraduate experiences of discovery and exploration without neglecting professional goals and career relevance.

Since Network Studies is new, its future potential benefits — though widely unknown at this point — must be considered, as should the risks of inaction. The shift to network thinking in modern society, including education, is happening whether addressed consciously or not. An active, strategic engagement with Network Studies can help us find opportunity in times of increased risk and keep track with changes to higher education already underway.

How should such an effort begin? The means will be unique to Oberlin and therefore somewhat improvisational. Time is of the essence, but action can be informal at first.

The conversation could begin as a Network Studies co-op or club. Students could ask faculty and advisors about Winter Term options, and more formal faculty or administration involvement could follow. Eventually, a module-long or cross-departmental introductory course could be offered. Network content will certainly be central to the planned integrative majors in business and global health. Alumni could offer invaluable feedback and connections.

If such a project seems daunting, recall the state of society in 1833, Oberlin’s founding year. The curse of slavery and impending civil war hung over our still-new nation, but was met by the assertion of elevated and aspirational ideals. Then followed work, simple yeomanry, and the unity of service and purpose that follows from working together.

In whatever form it eventually takes, Oberlin has a key role to play in upholding traditional standards of excellence and rigor in the liberal arts curriculum while integrating the principles and conditions of the network age.