A passionate marriage of disparate disciplines

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

In September 2014, the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University initiated a five-year pilot programme of two dual majors — Computer Science and Music, and Computer Science and English. The proposal argued that “computational photography, computer-generated music, and computer-based quantitative study of literary texts did not exist a decade ago, but are now active fields that integrate computer science with a more traditional discipline.”

The fact that the proposal for these two dual majors originated in Stanford’s Department of Computer Science — rather than in the English or Music department— says much about the professional culture of Silicon Valley, which, to a large extent, was created by this very department, with its students and alumni creating, among others, Hewlett-Packard, Netflix, Firefox, Yahoo, Google, Cisco Systems, Sun and LinkedIn.

As a humanist living and working in Silicon Valley, it is indeed deeply intriguing to observe its current culture of innovation. It is probably fair to say that the Valley began its road trip with hardware heavyweights like HP, right at that moment when Bill Hewlett won the toss over David Packard in their Stanford dorm room to get his name first in the company title. But as heavy industries moved overseas and then into slow obsolescence, Silicon Valley has become lighter, more ethereal, as borne out by the grail quest of the finest chip. Surveying the Caltrain corridor between San Francisco and San Jose, around the epicentre of Palo Alto, a writer or a musician might feel a dangerous kind of pleasure, as much of the recent tech energy has boomed around what I would call aesthetic, social, or affective inventions — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Flickr, Instagram. It’s dangerous because of the threats such digital platforms pose to many traditional forms of artistic and social exchange, but it is nonetheless a pleasure to see so much of Sand Hill Road’s venture capital and the New York Stock Exchange throb with excitement at the power of 140-character birdsong or a quirky photo-sharing app devised by a bored frat boy from his dorm room.

Put differently, the newborn alliance between Computer Science and the arts at Stanford looks as evolved from the professional and entrepreneurial culture surrounding it as it does from the older mission of integrative learning deeply embedded within — dare I say — liberal arts pedagogy. While institutions such as Williams, Swarthmore, Kenyon, Oberlin, Smith, and many others were specifically set up to embody this principle, customising a diversified education was always an available option for the American undergraduate across the nation. The dual major institutionalises this option on behalf of disciplines that have not come together often within the university, but which are being increasingly linked together worldwide.

When I received my undergraduate education in Calcutta in the mid-1990’s, customising a diversified education was not an option. My institution, St. Xavier’s, was also a liberal arts college, where I received an excellent education in a single subject, English literature. I had Sociology and Political Science as pass subjects and neglected them blithely. Nor did the social and pedagogic culture around us at that time encourage us to take pass subjects seriously — the Honours subject was all that mattered. I can say with confidence that when it comes to in-depth education in a single subject, the best institutions in India compare to the best anywhere in the world. But Indian colleges do nowhere near as well when it comes to combining disparate subjects — disciplines whose pairing might seem eclectic within the traditional academic model but which might enrich the student’s intellectual life in strange and unforeseen ways. This year’s Indian-origin Field Medalist Manjul Bhargava’s eloquent articulation of the embedded music of his chosen discipline, mathematics, had the Indian media relate to this problem. This in spite of the irony that Mr. Bhargava attributes much of his love for mathematics to Indian classical music and the synergy between music and mathematics has characterised Indian thought through the ages. This is interdisciplinarity — if that is even the right word for it — on a deeply philosophical plane, but the importance of attaining college-level command over two disciplines that are seemingly at odds with each other is also a very pragmatic one. But the monochromatic mood around post-secondary education in India rarely allows a mixed marriage.

Obsession with engineering

Engineering, of course, is the career God in India, and for the most part it is a reasonable deity. A developing nation with an expanding economy and continually evolving civic infrastructure needs a steady supply of engineers. On the micro-level, too, engineering offers the fastest track to upward mobility to people who need it the most.

But what could have remained a reasonable religion has, for the last several decades, been bordering on fundamentalism.

The obsessive focus on engineering as a ticket to a quick job (on which count the mushrooming engineering colleges are now beginning to fail its graduates) threatens to turn the global image of India into a factory of techno-clerks, smothering innovation and doing injustice to the country’s vast pool of talent.

Mr. Bhargava’s statement — that mathematics to him is more an art than a science — resonated with many. That the unlikely integration of disciplines is essential at the highest level of creativity is accepted a lot more readily than what becomes evident from the principle of Indian post-secondary education. Along with Bill Gates outlining the fact that technology is entwined with development, there is also, I would say, the Steve Jobs model of technology as art. Jobs reiterated throughout his life that without the class in calligraphy at Reed, a liberal arts college (where he never finished his degree), the Macintosh might have never happened. It sounds about right. Compare the sturdy, staid dependability of Windows versus the funky, tattooed artistry of the Mac. But while the Apple is religion in Silicon Valley, it has been slow in arriving in the developing market of India. In other words, nobody would deny that there is an element of elitism in the brash, creative confidence that motivates someone to major in philosophy along with business administration, or English literature with Computer Science. But shattering the monochromatic glass of obsession with a single discipline needs to happen at every level, not just at the highest level of philosophy in the classic Greek sense of the term as Mr. Bhargava has reminded us so profoundly. Such a sensibility is best quickened into life by the challenges of integrative learning, especially that which arises from the passionate and explosive marriage of disparate disciplines.

The 12-year-old daughter of a friend of mine in Calcutta tells me that her favourite subjects in school are physics and history. I hope that by the time she is ready to seek admission to college, she does not have to choose between the two. And that she does not.

(Saikat Majumdar teaches English at Stanford University. His new book on Calcutta theatre, The Firebird , will be published in 2015.)

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 8:21:20 AM |

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