January 20, 2019

KAMBHAMPATY | The Case for Transdisciplinary Studies

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In his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Peter Thiel discusses the ideology of competition, “Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them.” I wonder why we are doing this, but more importantly, how can we change this?

A department for Transdisciplinary Studies may be the answer.

Transdisciplinary research is defined as “research efforts conducted by investigators from different disciplines working jointly to create new conceptual, theoretical, methodological, and translational innovations that integrate and move beyond discipline-specific approaches to address a common problem.” The key here is the idea of moving beyond disciplines. Transdisciplinary research breaks down the boundaries between traditional disciplines and creates new ways of looking at issues. This is different from interdisciplinary research, which simply combines two or more varying disciplines and perspectives.

The issues we face today are multi-faceted and complex, rarely fitting into one category. Climate change, civil rights oppression and hunger cannot be solved by just science, math or humanities experts. They aren’t issues that can be taken care of with just policy changes, feats of engineering or beautiful design.  We need to bridge together disciplines in varying ways, forming new approaches, because, well, what we’re currently doing isn’t working.

Parsons School of Design has a program in Transdisciplinary Design (also known as Service Oriented Design) for students “interested in imagining alternative futures through design-led research tools and methods for addressing pressing social, economic, political and environmental issues and challenges of local and global dimensions.” Students in the program have made a service to help families dealing with terminal illness, an artful conception aimed at creating empathetic and emotional connections with nature, a vocabulary of newly designed words that highlight everyday air pollution indicators and related health effects, and much more.

The Ivy League is an interesting structure to serve as home to a department like this because it’s a place where thousands of the world’s most talented, hardworking and intelligent people come to study. We already have groups of pre-selected individuals who are qualified to solve the world’s issues. Let’s put them to proper use!

Thirty-one percent of graduating Harvard seniors go into finance and consulting. There is a Goldman Sachs Room in Columbia University’s career services office. Do I even need to get into the number of consulting and finance clubs and career fairs Cornell is host to?

A department for Transdisciplinary Studies on campus not only has the power to engage students in meaningful research and teach crucial skills, its mere presence counters the cultural hegemony on campus that pushes students into meaningless day jobs. You come to college because you’re passionate about something. You want to change the world. You care. Somewhere between moving into your freshman dorm and walking across Schoellkopf Field during graduation, the idea of wanting to change the world is pushed aside as a childlike notion and all that matters is finding a nine-to-five job. Why? Because it feels like it’s what everyone else is doing, like it’s the next step in leading a good, meaningful life.

Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” At one point, we are all naive enough to want to save the world. This childlike notion of wanting to save the world should not be pushed aside, it should be preserved and fostered. Transdisciplinary Studies encourages this, and I bet there would be more than a few students interested in such a program. The work that these students do and the fact that they are doing it in the first place directly counters the dark hole and spiral of consulting recruitment. Its presence and the work of the students who take part in it will let others know that it’s not naive to want to change the world; that consulting isn’t the only path.

It’s time to end the era of narrowly defining design, education and problem-solving. Education can be more than just a means to get a well-paying job. A department for Transdisciplinary Studies not only has the potential to solve problems that are beyond single disciplines, but can also challenge the current pre-professional zeitgeist at Cornell that urges conventional careers that do not harness the skills and brainpower we so carefully identified students for having and allowed them entry for. 

Anna P. Kambhampaty is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Imagined Life runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at akambhampaty@cornellsun.com.