The Pillars of Columbia

Published on November 5, 2015

Four towering marble pillars loom heavily inside Low Library, supporting its distinctive dome. Where they curve to make the roof of the rounded ceiling, each bears the engraved name of a classical discipline: medicine, law, theology, and philosophy.

Built at a time when phrenology was still in vogue, the pillars put forth these disciplines as the foundations of education and research at Columbia.

Today, these foundational pillars have been largely forgotten under the breadth and scope of academia spanning hundreds of different disciplines, many of which—like neuroscience and nanotechnology—would be utterly alien to the architects of Low Library.

But not everyone has forgotten about the legacy of these pillars.

In an office peppered with memorabilia from half a century at Columbia, Robert Pollack steeples his hands and closes his eyes. A biology professor, director of University Seminars, and former dean of Columbia College, Pollack speaks deliberately and clearly from experience.

“When you’re in Columbia College, and not in a professional school, you are being taught almost entirely by people from the faculty of philosophy by the premise that we have Ph.D.s—doctorates of philosophy,” he says. “Therefore, intrinsically, you are being given an education in an interdisciplinary way.”

For Pollack, the idea of being taught by different disciplines—while still under the umbrella of philosophy—is “the original interdisciplinarity” and the basis of the Core Curriculum.

The question of what exactly interdisciplinarity entails is important to anyone receiving a liberal arts education today. But for students at Columbia, the question is vital.

Interdisciplinarity is a fundamental aspect of scholarship and research at Columbia—pervasive in every student’s experience. Understanding how this interdisciplinarity operates can provide valuable insight into what makes a Columbia education work the way it does.

The collaborative Core

Aidan Mehigan, a Columbia College senior, is something of an oddity. His major is history of architecture—a degree he’ll share with only one other member of his graduating class—and he has not one, but two concentrations: English and physics.

Mehigan applied to only two colleges because he knew exactly what he wanted from an undergraduate education. The other college Mehigan applied to was St. John’s College, a tiny private college in Annapolis, Maryland, that appealed to Mehigan because its curriculum is essentially an expanded Core.

“It’s a four-year great books program. That’s what a curriculum should be,” he says, leaning forward in excitement. Then, a confession: “If I had my way, there would be no choices and the Core would be everything.”

In fact, Mehigan says the main reason he chose to concentrate in physics is simply because the Core didn’t require him to take enough science courses to provide him with a strong background in the area. The science requirement includes Frontiers of Science and two distribution requirements, a small part of the 40 plus credit Core.

Despite what he sees as shortcomings, Mehigan is here because of the ubiquity of the Core’s approach to interdisciplinary learning.

“It’s really, really important that everyone is reading more or less the same texts so that you create a campus culture and give everybody a common frame of reference,” he says. This way, physics majors, English majors, and everyone in between have the potential to communicate academically, in spite of their disciplinary silos.

As I listen to Mehigan, I’m reminded of Pollack’s own fervor for the Core, which he relates in anecdotes that reach back to his time as an undergraduate in 1957.

“No faculty member in the CC [Contemporary Civilization] program or the [Literature] Humanities program knows all the readings,” he declares. “Necessarily, they are teaching out of their discipline, at least some of the time. That opens them to a state of equal vulnerability to not being the expert with someone in the class who has a new idea.”

Rather than simply feeling trepidation at the idea of this vulnerability as a student outside his expertise, Pollack felt affirmed by the challenge and freedom.

“For somebody like me—as a physics major—to find that my opinions about Dostoyevsky mattered to my instructor was a kind of liberating experience that a distribution requirement would never give me,” he says.

To what extent this actually constitutes interdisciplinarity depends on who you ask.

Defining interdisciplinarity

Merriam-Webster gives a less-than-precise definition of interdisciplinary: “involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic areas of knowledge,” or simply “involving two or more disciplines.”

Everyone seems to have their own personal definition and conception of what qualifies as interdisciplinary. Because of this, the word has become a placeholder to describe any activity outside of the strict confines of one’s own discipline.

Andrew Goldman is composer, pianist, and a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Science and Society. As a member of the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience program launched this year at Columbia, he blends his interests of musicology and neuroscience under the tutelage of advisors in music, biomedical engineering, and pscyhology. But Goldman isn’t sure that what he’s doing is actually a combination of disciplines.

“I use neuroscience to study music and all the behaviors that are involved. Whether that’s a combination…” he says, trailing off and pausing before beginning again. “I think it’s important to question what it means to be interdisciplinary.”

Goldman prefers to say that he uses “one to study the other.” For him, neuroscience is the methodology and music is the subject.

Still, he recognizes that that’s not the only approach to the subject and admits that it is possible to actually combine both music and neuroscience.

“Maybe I mean to say that there are different modes of interdisciplinarity,” Goldman says.

Pollack, on the other hand, addresses the question of what interdisciplinarity is in terms of how it pertains to research and teaching.

“Research normally proceeds through one or another discipline,” he says, but takes issue with the idea that teaching can be similarly disciplinary.

“Teaching, as opposed to indoctrination or training, is an essentially symmetric processes in which a person takes what they know from a discipline or a set of disciplines and finds a way to be heard and hear someone in turn, responding to what they have been told,” he says.

Patricia Culligan is more interested in how interdisciplinarity works within an academic curriculum. As the associate director of the Data Science Institute, one of her responsibilities is overseeing the new Masters of Science in Data Science program.

The masters program combines knowledge from multiple fields, including statistics and algorithms. But Culligan doesn’t think that simply taking courses from several departments will suffice.

“I don’t think you can just give people training in different disciplines and say, ‘Now I’ve taught you economics and social science and I’ve taught you math and you can figure out how they go together,’” she says. “Interdisciplinary education is both getting training from knowledge that stems from different disciplines, plus the ability to synthesize that knowledge.”

Tradition and change

Even with a consistent definition, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the tradition of interdisciplinarity began at the University—and in particular, Columbia College. Most of the academics I spoke to pointed to World War II, which was a factor that mobilized academics in the United States around some of the largest questions and challenges they had yet faced.

Sociology professor Peter Bearman is the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics, which houses—among other initiatives—Columbia’s oral history center. Long before INCITE was established in 2012, Paul Lazarsfeld ran the Bureau for Applied Social Research and helped define modern sociology.

“We claim that same lineage. Whatever the core of what the Bureau was, we took that because it seemed continuous,” Bearman says. “A lot of things we take for granted these days, in terms of social science research, like focus groups, a survey, they were all kind of Columbia creations.”

In spite of the Bureau’s success, it faded away after several decades, lost to all but historians and sociology buffs.

After World War II ended and the Cold War loomed, the University founded what was then known as the Russian Institute to study the reclusive Soviet Union. As the director of what was renamed as the Harriman Institute, Alexander Cooley has seen much change in the study of Russia.

“Sovietology lost its place of privilege because of the end of the Cold War,” he says. Even more recently, federal budgets for regional studies—comprehensive fields that include multiple disciplines to examine a region—were slashed because they lacked priority in tough financial times.

The Harriman Institute, Cooley says, has only remained above the high water because of its independent endowments. Ironically, the past few years have seen a resurgence of Russia’s military and political presence.

“A lot of these issues are exactly the type of issues that we’re revisiting now,” he says, with emphasis on the “exactly.”

During the Cold War, the Russian Institute served as one of the primary centers dedicated to producing knowledge and assessment about the closed off, relatively poorly-understood Soviet Union. To do this, academics decided that they needed a multifaceted approach. Researchers from five original disciplines—economics, history, literature, international relations, and public law—composed the original faculty of the Russian Institute.

These faculty members, in turn, taught students who were required to learn rigorously from each field.

It’s no longer the sole, or even primary source of knowledge on Russia. “The rise of the think tanks,” Cooley says, “means that the academy no longer plays in the kind of space that it used to.”

Despite its renaming and changing times, the Harriman Institute still provides an interdisciplinary education to its students in a similar model.

“The training required to produce a qualified specialist in the Russian field is long and arduous. It must include a study of the Russian language, a survey of Russian civilization, and a period of intensive study and research in an elected discipline as applied to Russian subject matter,” founding director of the Russian Institute Geroid T. Robinson wrote in 1947.

Today, this approach is perhaps best exemplified in Cooley’s class, Legacies of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, which covers everything from novels by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to speeches by Vladimir Putin, taught by scholars across multiple disciplines.

These kinds of changes in interdisciplinary ventures—in their method, role, and content—are by no means limited to the Harriman Institute.

Like the Harriman (née Russian) Institute, the Core was also started on the heels of a war.

When it was originally founded in 1919, the Core’s roots were a combination of history and philosophy courses to teach students in a post-World War I era.

According to Pollack, the Core as we know it—replete with primary sources and “great works” like the Iliad and the Odyssey—began with Jacques Barzun, who graduated from Columbia College in 1927 and was dean of Columbia College.

Barzun helped launch the precursor to Lit Hum, Colloquium in Important Books, in the 1930s. From there, the Core began to solidify around the interdisciplinary study of primary texts.

Students since then have witnessed an increasing number of Core seminars replace distribution requirements, all the way up until the addition of Frontiers of Science in 2004.

But the perennial struggle of the Core—at least since Pollack has been around—is that the rhetoric surrounding it doesn’t match actual support given to it. Although the disciplines receive funding, the interdisciplinary nature of the Core and its disconnect from research-related funding means that it can struggle to have the necessary support.

“If you want the Core to be what it says it is, it should be a structure that has the funding to pay the chair of a department to release the time of the tenure-track faculty who wish to teach in the core instead of in the discipline,” Pollack says.

Without this funding, faculty members who teach Core classes end up effectively performing charity work.

This lack of support can mean that fewer tenure-track faculty—who are more expensive—teach in the Core. In Pollack’s opinion, this poses a great danger to the Core’s interdisciplinary mission.

“The value of the Core is, in part, proportional to the depth of experience of the person who is now showing his or her vulnerability as a human being by talking about a subject that they’re not expert in,” he says. “If you’ve been really top of your field in anything, it’s really interesting to hear what you think about something that’s not your field.”

In spite of these difficulties, the Core and its trajectory still line with the general trend at Columbia: toward increasing interdisciplinarity.

Trending upward

In 2009, Mark Taylor, a professor of religion at Columbia, authored a New York Times op-ed predicting the demise of disciplines and discrete fields. While his prediction was neither certain nor imminent, it recognized a trend of increasing interdisciplinarity.

National Science Foundation funding specifically for interdisciplinary research, hundreds of universities with institutes that cross the disciplines, and even sports figures being touted for their interdisciplinary backgrounds all speak to this trend.

There has even been a dramatic increase in rhetoric about the interdisciplinary.

At Columbia, this can be difficult to quantify.

Counting the number of interdisciplinary seminars or faculty who produce interdisciplinary work is next to impossible due to both sheer numbers and again, hazy definitions about the exact definition.

The best metric to use to look for a trend may be undergraduate degrees. Since the listing of “interdepartmental major” as a category for degrees appeared in 2004, the percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded in it has more than doubled.

This growth mirrors the growing number of prominent interdisciplinary institutes and centers over the past decade, which include the CSS, the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, INCITE, and the Data Science Institute.  

The Manhattanville campus, despite its controversies, also portends a bright future and growing prominence for interdisciplinary research, with multiple buildings still in the conceptual stage earmarked specifically for housing future interdisciplinary work.

Yet, at the same time, no one I spoke to discounted the importance of specialization.

“INCITE is sort of predicated on the idea that you can’t really build a meaningful interdisciplinary space without pretty intense disciplinary training,” Bearman says.

How intense is “pretty intense?” Bearman says that the minimum level of specialization he considers “pretty intense” is that of senior graduate students.

This dedication to specialization was echoed by other faculty members. Culligan has been involved in many interdisciplinary projects with the Institute and emphasizes their importance, but doesn’t for a second discount the role of disciplinary training.

“I don’t think you’re gonna throw the specialization out,” she says. “What you’re gonna need to do is create new environments for people with the different specializations to come together.”

The trend of increasing interdisciplinarity is further complicated the fact that fields once considered interdisciplinary can become disciplines unto themselves.

Sociology, for example, can trace its roots to psychology, philosophy, and history, but now exists as a discrete discipline. It’s possible that with time, interdisciplinarity leads to the rise of more specific disciplinarity.

This notion—that interdisciplinarity and specialization work together—can seem strange at first. But examples of this symbiotic relationship can be found prominently at Columbia: one of the most important collaborations across disciplines was the Manhattan Project, named for its original location underneath Pupin Hall.

The project brought physicists, chemists, and engineers together to tackle the problem of creating an atomic bomb. It was their collaborative efforts and successes that led directly to the creation of modern nuclear physics as a discipline.

By all accounts, the relationship between interdisciplinarity and specialization is alive and well today, and there are few places where it is more prevalent than in neuroscience.

Building tomorrow, today

From far off, down Broadway, the Jerome L. Green Science Center appears hardly more than a hazy blur. Façades of glass layered upon glass give the building a distinctive blue, scientific tint. Along with several other buildings on the Manhattanville campus, it will house many of Columbia’s future interdisciplinary efforts.

With its stated aim of being more welcoming and less elitist, one has to wonder. It stands in stark contrast to the gritty, stocky buildings around it, further offset by skyward reaching smokestacks and detritus from construction.

Thomas Jessell, a co-director of the MBBI, is responsible for overseeing the interdisciplinary nature of the institute.

Jessell believes that the institute has a three-part mission: “First of all is to create the very best center or focus or institute for studying brain and mind anywhere in the world.” In Jessell’s crisp, British tones, it sounds like a royal prerogative. The second and third parts of this mission are to perform outreach to the rest of the University and to the city, respectively.

In addition to the MBBI’s sheer size—it will be comprised by 1000 people and over 50 labs in the largest building Columbia has ever built for the sciences—Jessell hopes to differentiate it with the variety of its researchers. Neuroscientists will be joined by engineers, physicists, and statisticians to address the questions that surround the brain and behavior.

Part of the reason that this approach will work, Jessell says, is because of similarities between the disciplines that allow them to connect on this issue.

“If you’re used to dealing with very large numbers, like statisticians and in some cases cosmologists and physicists are used to doing, then the problems of dealing with numerical complexity are, in fact, surprisingly common between astrophysics and fields of neuroscience,” he says.

Jessell believes that collaboration isn’t limited to only the STEM-heavy fields either. The MBBI has a partnership with the CSS, which supports the Presidential Scholars program launched this year. By throwing social sciences like psychology into the mix, researchers like Goldman can probe different aspects of the mind, brain and behavior question than their strictly STEM counterparts .

Even academics in the humanities, like philosophers, will be affiliates of the MBBI, although they may not have a place in the actual building. This approach is in contrast with its peer institutions, most of which consist solely of neuroscience faculty.

But the mission of outreach, Jessell argues, transcends disciplines. “One of the arguments that [University President] Lee Bollinger has made is that if you stop to think about it, everybody is a student of mind and brain in one form, whether they realize it or not,” Jessell says.

To help undergraduates realize this fact, there are tentative plans for the incorporation of issues into the Core that the MBBI deals with. Jessell knows this is hallowed ground, so he is treading carefully.

“The Core Curriculum would benefit I think from an injection of some aspect of brain and mind, so we’re talking to achieve that,” he says. “Not to achieve a glut of neuroscience that’s not wanted by the academics, the undergraduates—but to create something that really fills a need.”

For students like Mehigan, who believe the Core is comes up short on science, this could be exactly what the doctor ordered. “I think a good liberal arts education has to do more than pay lip service to science,” he says. Part of the reason he is taking a concentration in physics, a subject he said he struggles with, is to address the lack of science in the Core.

Mehigan disagrees that this necessarily means putting a punishing workload on students less adroit in the sciences. “I reject the idea that there are humanities people and math and science people. I think it’s something we do to ourselves,” he says.

If there is any effort at Columbia that seeks to bridge this gap, it is the newly established Center for Science and Society, which has barely been around for a year. Headed by professor of history Pamela Smith, the CSS is dedicated to both education and research include scientific and non-scientific disciplines.

Six “clusters” aim to promote interdisciplinary research by grouping faculty from multiple disciplines across multiple schools together. Smith notes that the mixing of humanities experts, social scientists, and natural scientists in the same lab goes beyond the normal conception of interdisciplinary research, which is collaboration between closely related fields like physics and chemistry.

“The problems that face us today are of such complexity, like climate science, like epidemics,” she says, “are of such complexity that the natural sciences alone can’t find solutions to them.”

Although these problems may need to be solved in a highly interdisciplinary way, the problems themselves may in fact give rise to collaboration because of their existence.

“Interdisciplinarity is not natural,” Cooley tells me bluntly. “We tend to think that interdisciplinarity … should be the natural sort of state of things. But people need to be brought together. They need to be given incentives.”

Cooley’s perspective is informed by the rise of the Russian Institute and recent slumps of interest in regional studies of Russia. Because interdisciplinary efforts require extra work, he says something must mobilize them. In the Russian Institute’s case, it was the rise of the Soviet Union.

Other projects have had vastly different causal factors. According to Culligan, the DSI was a direct result of the economic downturn in the financial and real estate markets. Seeing this, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for new engineering and applied science initiatives. Columbia accordingly responded with the DSI.

For the MBBI, mobilization was even more clearly tied to a single person. When asked what pushed the institute forward into existence, Jessell spoke in glowing terms.

“If there’s one hero in all of this, it’s Lee Bollinger for having the vision to create this new campus and the forthrightness to choose a discipline far from his own to be the first real programmatic representation for all of that,” he said.

However, without this driving force—or with insufficient momentum—interdisciplinary work can all too easily collapse. 

Obstacles and impediments

“Space is the final frontier at Columbia,” Smith says. It is truer for interdisciplinary work than most.

Part of this is that interdisciplinarity, by its nature, requires collaboration, and collaboration requires shared space.

“There is something that happens in shared space that is a little beyond the serendipitous encounter,” Bearman says. “It’s about creating the opportunities for the kind of contacts that, on the fly, make it possible for people to have new ideas.”

More so than any other enterprise, the MBBI has been blessed with a wealth of space—over 450,000 square feet in the Jerome L. Greene Science Center. Even so, Jessell has had to be careful with space, picking and choosing who will actually have offices and labs there.

He shares much the same view as Bearman. “If you go into a typical Columbia science building, the idea of meeting rooms is low down on the priority list,” he says. To address this, every floor of the MBBI has multiple meeting spaces that Jessell hopes will provide the room for interactions that “trigger an idea.”

Perhaps the greatest struggle to surmount disciplinary barriers lies not with money or space—well-endowed does not begin to describe the money pouring into the MBBI—but communication.

Building a common language is an incredibly intensive task, Culligan tells me. “To do that requires the faculty that are interacting to read each others’ literature. We have to explain to each other where there’s not a clear understanding what the literature means,” she says.

Finding common language extends beyond research, though.

“Disciplines have developed different languages, they develop different approaches, and it’s hard for them to talk to each other, to even talk the same language to each other,” Smith says.

This is a reality, even for relatively unspecialized undergraduates who adopt these differing cultures early on.

Mehigan believes that it’s one, if not the most important, aspect of what the Core does. “If you went to some other school, and said ‘Okay, I’m going to major in English and Art history,’ you wouldn’t ever have the kinds of conversations that you have in Lit Hum and Art Hum,” he says.

These discussions between students who study in different disciplines, who speak different languages, he says, are the grounds from which to construct a campus culture. Most important may be the conversations about what makes the conversations possible.

“Lots of people say extremely dumb and ignorant things about the Core in Spec,” he begins. “But the fact that they’re talking about it, and everybody knows that they’re talking about it, and that this is a thing that we talk about in our public print outlet—that doesn’t happen everywhere, and I think that’s really important.”

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