The act of learning is not—and never was—an autonomous affair. At the very least, there must be a teacher, and there must be a student. Learning institutions expand beyond this basic formulation: In the university, a word that means “community of teachers and scholars,” all the students and all the teachers together form an academic community. In this sense, learning presupposes interaction, communication, debate, and intellectual adventures into the unknown.
Even at Columbia, one would have a hard time defining learning in this way. Despite the Core Curriculum’s attempt to expose us all to new ideas and subjects, we very rarely internalize and build on the universal mood that the Core sets out to create. There is a constant temptation to do away with the communal setting and focus all one’s time and energy in one particular field. There are countless English majors guilty of never opting to take a class—let alone several classes to achieve competency—in math. There are many students who, struggling to finish a taxing problem set, forget about foreign affairs. There are those naturally talented in theater or dance who never try their hand at magazine writing. While we are awfully busy in all that we each individually do, we too often forget to look up.
The root of the problem is the structure of Columbia’s academic departments. In Education and Experience, John Dewey posits that all teachers must challenge themselves to fashion a learning community in which students learn the values of accommodation and adaptation. But our departments are not flexible, and they do not adapt. There are very particular requirements within every discipline, and each major functions as a single-track program. A Columbia student can major in physics. Or in history. Or in sociology. But, aside from the rare exceptions of economics-philosophy or comparative literature and society, there are few other interdisciplinary options. There is no government and history and philosophy track, or an English and language and poetry track. The Core allows students to dabble in fields other than their own, and the opportunity to double-major allows a student to tackle more than just one discipline, but there is no option for classes and programs of study that directly build and relate to one another. The notion of a science course that directly adds and relates to a philosophy class, or vice versa, is nonexistent.
Learning early that they will have to focus their attentions solely on one or another discipline, Columbia students tend to design their involvement on campus in a similarly linear way. While each of us have a right to our own interests, we should also make use of the privilege to extend as well as widen them. The science student should take advantage of the scholar who comes to address the international crisis of the moment, and the English student should jump on the opportunity to learn about the breakthrough technological advantages of the day.
There are some brave Columbia students out there who double-major in unrelated fields and involve themselves in a wide variety of campus groups. But the rest of us are left admiring interests other than our own but unsure of how to take part in them. We often lament how we lack a sense of community but fail to articulate that the problem is academic as well as social. If only our community began acting like a community, our experience would be a richer one. If we embraced new and foreign ideas, they might one day cease to seem alien and become familiar, become part of our own vocabulary. If we could each understand and relate to both the sciences and the humanities, we would graduate with a clearer, fuller picture of the world.
We can start doing this today. Rarely do such a diverse array of academic departments—the Center for Palestine Studies, the Department of English and Comparative Literature, the Heyman Center for the Humanities, and the Middle East Institute—put on an event jointly, as they are tonight in Roone Arledge Cinema. These departments are hosting a memorial event for the late, notable and controversial literary critic and advocate of Palestinian rights, Edward Said. For some, myself included, the nature of this event extends beyond our usual comfort zone of political discourse. For others, the entire substance of the event is far from the topics that you might personally hold dear. But this is an opportunity to chose to expand our interests, beyond signing up for the mandatory Art Hum: to chose universality, and not particularism.
So take this opportunity to go and learn. Next week, attend a talk on the history of Zionism and Israeli politics. The week after, learn about the science of self-operating cars. Push a friend to go with you. It only takes an hour or two to begin extending your worldview. And one by one, we can create the learning community that this university should be.
Joshua Fattal is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. Fattal Attraction runs alternate Mondays.
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