Columbia notified faculty and students last Tuesday that classes would resume the next day. They explained by email, “Our students will only benefit by beginning to reengage in the purposeful work that brings our University community—and our City—together each day.” Given that Columbia was one of New York’s few academic institutions unharmed by the storm, the administration was correct to continue operations.
It must be acknowledged, however, that the work of academics in our institution does not necessarily bring our University and city together every day, as noted in the email. Very little of my coursework at Columbia College directly contributes to life in New York City. In one global health course usually offered in the spring, a visiting professor predicted that global warming would intensify heat waves in cities all over the world, including ours. He made the case that more health professionals should develop an interest in environmental issues, citing the connection between global warming and increased chronic respiratory disease. Other than this suggestion, the lecturer did not offer any tangible solutions.
Thus far, Columbia College has been a leading institution in terms of teaching undergraduates pure, theoretical knowledge in the sciences and unveiling the full complexity of our interpersonal interactions in the humanities. In short, our school is a stronghold for the basic academic disciplines. However, there are major gaps in the production of applied knowledge and the translation of knowledge into action. In the context of the hurricane, for example, there are few, if any, classes that educate students in the field of emergency management. I doubt that my college education makes me inherently more qualified to allocate resources in a hurricane shelter than a pragmatic person without a college degree.
I believe that there may already be answers to the most intimidating challenges of our lifetime, including the decline of the European welfare state, health reform, and our strained relationship with the natural environment. Unfortunately, I rarely find satisfying ones in my undergraduate coursework. At the end of sophomore year, I declared a major in environmental science in order to better understand the processes that drive the Earth’s physical environment. I believed that gauging the impact that human activity has on these processes could help people make responsible, sustainable decisions in the future.
There’s no doubt that I received a strong education in geology, geophysics, and climate science. Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences is indeed ranked top in the nation. However, while I believe I have a better understanding of the Earth and its inner workings, I am not sure if all this knowledge will actually help me make good decisions in the future. I know a whole lot about calculating the rate at which the sea level in Greenland would rise once its ice caps melt. But none of my classes taught me what this information means for Danish policy makers who are making long-term decisions about the use of the affected land.
Columbia’s biology department is similarly well respected in the big leagues, but I am not sure if my premedical education will actually help me be a great physician. In my biochemistry class, for example, the professor spoke at great lengths on how inhibiting an enzyme in the mitochondria speeds up fat metabolism in mice. He implied the solution to the nation’s obesity epidemic rested on his research. But he failed to acknowledge that we already have the answers. The cure for obesity can be as simple as changing people’s diets and their built environment so that they would be encouraged to be physically active. Based solely on my biochemistry lecture, I would tell a future patient about an exceedingly expensive treatment that fundamentally manipulates his fat metabolism. I would, however, be able to say nothing about proper physical activity and nutrition.
It is not only the duty of the engineering and professional schools to apply knowledge into action that directly impacts our surrounding communities. As a not-for-profit institution, Columbia receives significant support and many privileges from our city, beginning with not having to pay certain taxes and receiving considerable government funding for research. The institution as a whole has an obligation to produce knowledge that benefits society. This responsibility means that research faculty cannot measure their own success in terms of the number of academic publications they hold. Instead, the true measure of their success is how willing and how able they are to communicate what they know to people with varying academic backgrounds.
Columbia also carries an obligation to its students to help them combine passion and practicality. In other words, CC students should have the academic freedom to choose secondary majors in engineering, public policy, and applied sciences without having to transfer to a different school. Just because a body of knowledge is not esoteric and has popular appeal does not make it less worthy of academic inquiry. In fact, investing in knowledge that has practical, real-world applications is the most significant way that Columbia can respond to our city during desperate, pressing times.
James Yoon is a Columbia College senior majoring in environmental science. Yooniversity runs alternate Thursdays.