Boundaries are Becoming Blurred Between Disciplines and Departments

Technology increasingly will affect teaching and research across disciplines, while interesting questions at the margins of the disciplines will strain the traditional organization of departments. How will sciences be taught in colleges and universities as technology takes hold and the public becomes increasingly concerned about the costs of research and education?

It is folly to presume to predict the nature of the extraordinary developments in technology that will shape life in the 21st century. But surely rich and easily accessible databases, interactive computational experiments, virtual reality and nth generation computation will affect all that we now do in the classroom and the laboratory. Assuming that the college as we know it- a place away from home where students and faculty come together to learn and understand- does not disappear, our current reliance on the lecture as a technique of instruction will not speak either to our needs or our constraints: databases of easily accessible lectures by leaders in every field, computer interactivity across the world, and the need to individualize instruction in an economically constrained environment will all militate against gathering students to hear a professor lecture, no matter how brilliant.

Independence and discovery will become more central to the educational process, creating an environment more like that of 19th century Oxford, than the Sorbonne of today. Laboratories will have to be constructed to withstand the hard use of young people exploring on their own, with minimal supervision, and the faculty will be engaged in tutorial-like instruction, emphasizing the individual needs of students. Some experiments will exploit virtual reality- no noxious chemicals there- while others will be computer interactive with enough artificial intelligence to take account of student idiosyncrasies.

With so many interesting questions arising at the interstices of disciplines, and knowledge increasingly interrelated, departments as we know them will cease to exist: ad hoc groups will come together and disperse as common interests develop and wane. Students will study science in settings resembling the New Pathways program at Harvard Medical School rather than in, say, a physics program of today; that is, scientific problems will themselves generate the explorations of what are now the disciplinary ideas "owned" by departments.

With substantially more flexibility in the way knowledge is organized and presented, non-science students will be able to pursue their studies in exactly the way future scientists do, but not necessarily at the same level of sophistication. Indeed, with growing concerns about public policy issues in medicine, technology and law, among other areas of concern, the well-educated citizen will not wish to leave science to the professionals. Everyone needs to understand how scientific knowledge is organized, and questions or disagreements resolved.

As we look ahead, there is a danger that science within the academy may be so starved for resources that separate institutions are formed, on the model of NIH, with only a passing connection to the academy. Perhaps the college/university will not be able to accommodate more than tabletop science. While this shift might seem economically attractive in the short run, especially as the public becomes ever more restive about the cost of higher education, it would lead to a weakening of the high level of training for undergraduate students. The academy must continue to engage the world of politics, even if only as "public intellectuals," in the interest of education and knowledge.

Finally, how might we best prepare for the future? Create a community of scholars, develop a lean, lab-rich curriculum, and enrich opportunities for independent exploration of our physical reality. We can no longer organize the teaching of science around answers to questions that students have not asked.