Getting the most out of the Core Curriculum is a challenge. A student who juggles a full course load, extracurriculars, a part-time job, internships, endless applications, and a social life may not find it terribly prudent or easy to spend evenings reconciling the many Machiavellis or deconstructing the Socratic elenchus.
My impression is that, for some students, this practical burden is compounded by their sense that some Core requirements are not relevant to their main academic interests. This was true for me, a physics major who, like most of my classmates, considered my university’s humanities requirements to be a distraction from my chosen subject. I assumed that the substance and methods of the physical and biological sciences, social sciences, and humanities are not only different but also independent, so that doing one meant not doing the other. I was fortunate to have friends outside of my program whose interest in the humanities and social sciences led me to those subjects, and, eventually caused me to reconsider the walls I believed stood between them.
But that’s not how it has to be. We should better appreciate the value of interdisciplinary research and a general education. We should generate more excitement about them by regarding different fields as connected in a deep, intrinsic way. We ought to regard the various disciplines as different aspects of one comprehensive perspective on a single, large subject: the truth.
The ideal of a sole, unified explanation is already a working assumption in many fields. Physicists aim to develop coherent, simple, and elegant physical theories by knitting together inconsistent hypotheses and recalcitrant data into a systematic picture of nature. Historians and social scientists explain human events by interpreting people’s beliefs, motives, and actions, as if they form coherent packages: They infer beliefs from motives and motives from actions. Literary critics interpret novels and plays by identifying themes or messages that show how elements of plot, character, image, diction, and style interconnect and reinforce each other.
Why should that assumption of an underlying unity not also run across these fields? What if the most stubborn and fundamental interdisciplinary contrasts—between subject and object, mental and physical, purpose and cause, value and fact—are merely surface-level, and ultimately hang together as different parts of one indivisible truth?
This notion that truth may cohere across domains is old and controversial. The Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote of a hedgehog who knew “one big thing,” viewed the world as a comprehensive unity. In his famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin derided the hedgehog’s monistic vision as both a symptom of intellectual immaturity and a political danger that inevitably leads to slaughter in the name of a final solution. Among Berlin’s best critics is Ronald Dworkin, who, in his essays “Do Values Conflict? A Hedgehog’s Approach” and the recent “Justice for Hedgehogs,” charges that Berlin exaggerates these dangers by misrepresenting the hedgehog’s big idea.
We can think of the hedgehog’s vision as, quite simply, a working assumption of interconnectedness across our entire body of beliefs. It supposes that research and inquiry grope gradually toward greater unity using different strategies to refine our ideas and theories in order to resolve apparent conflicts among them. This process may always remain a work in progress and never achieve closure. And for that reason, we have no right to assume in advance that our various forms of understanding are messy and disconnected. Unity within and between domains always remains in the cards.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a physicist’s attempt to unify the fundamental forces of nature is inadequate unless checked against our best reading of King Lear. But it might mean that the best physical theory does pass that test because it assumes that science and art ultimately depend on each other. Art awakens aesthetic sensibilities that drive our search for more integrated and more elegant theories of the cosmos and our place in it. Scientific discoveries, which make us marvel at nature’s sublime vastness and expose the absurdity of the human condition, propel artistic creation. When we stop marveling across disciplines, we cheat them all by cutting their engines of development.
The hedgehog’s approach therefore encourages a particular attitude toward education and learning. By asking us to treat different disciplines not as many but as one, it blocks the crippling prejudice that the subjects are essentially divorced and have nothing to say to each other.
The Core Curriculum is an entry point into the hedgehog’s one big idea. It invites us to join some of history’s greatest minds—and each other—in studying our chosen disciplines with the assumption that they will somehow eventually unite with the rest in a higher understanding we have yet to attain. I have no good idea what that understanding might involve, and whatever it is, it probably won’t make school more practical for the average Columbia student. But its possibility is an intellectually liberating force and, in my view, an exhilarating one.
The author is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of political science. After Office Hours runs every Friday.
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