The dissection of subjects and knowledge has been a bone of contention in Indian high schools, colleges and universities for sometime now, and though new ‘interdisciplinary’ courses are very often offered, it does not really do
justice to the nature of intelligence which more often than not lies in making connections I think, rather than just specializations. The narrow bandwidth within which we study subjects is biased towards an economic purpose rather than an intellectual one. Maybe it is to do with the need of the human mind
for predictability, form, order and answers which unfortunately exist only in man-made creations, while the nature of life itself is unpredictable and undivided. It somehow feels that language is also responsible for this compartmentalization, for it has conveniently given names to objects and ideas
and in turn created barriers to understanding the underlying link between areas of study. The question which we are asking is, if this categorizing of knowledge and learning leads to a holistic understanding of the world we live in and our own lives, or does it limit an individuals intellectual growth?
This division of learning starts early, in the 5th grade when children suddenly realize that the sciences are all separate, that history has no connection with chemistry or that geography and physics are poles apart. Unfortunately, even textbooks do not in anyway show the links between the nine or ten subjects the students learn for seven odd years. This sort of conditioning is strengthened by teachers who often know nothing about another subject. A possible solution to this is disseminating knowledge which is linked to practical everyday happenings rather than being abstract or theoretical. Let me illustrate this with an experiment which we conducted in a particular ICSE school. The targeted students were all in high school, a lot which had begun to or had already witnessed the dissection of cognition. We used and adapted a system which has successfully been used in the Primary Year and Middle Year Programs (PYP and MYP) of the International Baccalaureate Program for many years now. The idea was to learn thematically, rather than chronologically which invariably was dependent upon textbooks and chapters. The theme for the first quarter was ‘measurement’ and all teachers were to spend at least half their classroom time on this topic and work across subjects. The idea was to have one Matphy class rather than two separate Maths and Geography classes! What we found was that most teachers were hesitant to even try, but once they saw that they can actually study
measurement in English for example, they opened up to the idea. The experiment was both a success and a failure. The novelty of the idea in an ICSE curriculum was well received but its contribution to bettering the transfer of knowledge was not acknowledged. The teachers still wanted to devote a large portion of their students time studying specialized subjects. But at least a part of the students experience and learning time line, was shifted from numbered chapters to motifs which resembled the ambiguous nature of real life more accurately.
As a result a number of questions came to mind immediately. To list a few, one started asking what the impetus to learning is? What level of specialization is appropriate? Wouldn’t knowing everything make someone a Jack of all trades and a master of none? What role, other than a catalyst for fruitful employment, does high school and undergraduate education aim for? The answers are not clear but certain examples do prove that smudging knowledge has given the world new ways of looking and new interpretations.
Historically, science and art within the scope of commerce of course, have fused to produce some of the most astonishing inventions. I shall focus here on sciences influence on art but there are ample examples where art has influenced science too. The Renaissance, in fact encouraged this amalgamation of disciplines. Was Da Vinci an artist or a scientist?In the 19th century did Impressionist and Post -Impressionist movements evolve by themselves or were they a consequence of a scientific temperament in artists like Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Renoir and others. Georges Seurat was influenced by the physics of color which led to Pointillism which also would have been impossible without the invention of artificial pigments. Picasso in the last century developed Cubism which fragmented subjects into nonlinear entities soon after Einstein proposed his theory of relativity. Maybe
there was a connection?
But most students in the Indian education system are required to choose an area of study at the age of 14. Is it not too early for a child to decided weather he or she wants to be a doctor, engineer or a painter? Society today does not always shut off options but a large chunk of these career decisions are taken under parental or peer pressure and are based on market trends. Our education system is an inflexible triangle of opposites with the sciences, the humanities and commerce at three extremes. A broadness of approach is lost in the spaces within the triangle and very rarely do students review their decisions as mature adults. It is still impossible for a fine arts student to opt for an elective in physics or vice versa. Sadly, subjects are divided on the basis of language and mindsets rather than viewed as metamorphic entities.
Around the world though, a Renaissance styled commingling is evolving. The hard lines between disciplines are being erased. Academicians, researchers and teachers are discovering the embedded commonality in subjects. Departments are being fused and strangely this is not in anyway a paradigm shift towards a new world but a simple reconciliation of the fact that nature, life and its correlation which we have sought to understand is itself undivided.
Austine Wood Comarow invented Polage or polarized light collage in the 1960’s and this presents itself as a good example of thinking across specializations. As an artist Comarow used polarizing synthetic filters which was developed by Edwin Land to create a kind of dynamic painting which changed in a cyclical manner. In this case I am sure the point of heightened intelligence was when Comarow could actually see beyond the conventional application of those filters. A recent and more publicized case is that of Eduardo Kac who is an associate professor of art and technology. Kac calls himself a “transgenic artist” who creates dynamic sculptures using biotechnology and genetic engineering. His most famous and controversial work was the GFP loaded glowing bunny Alba.
Although the above may seem like random examples, one cannot deny the interaction between the sciences, the arts, the humanities and commerce. After all every single academic discipline stems from our curiosity to learn about and understand the world we live in. Schools, colleges and universities in India should try and see beyond the veneer of difference and offer an education which is flexible and interdisciplinary. It is in the connections, after all. The painter Robert Eskridge put this aptly in a lecture he delivered at the Art Institute of Chicago where he said, “both (art and science) involve ideas, theories and hypotheses that are tested in places where mind and hand come together – the laboratory and studio. Artists like scientists study – materials, people, culture, history, religion, mythology – and learn to transform information into something else.”