Arts vs science is a false dichotomy

Interdisciplinary degrees open the door for students seeking a varied education more reflective of both their GCSE experience and the wider world of work, writes Carl Gombrich

Open door on new horizons

Starting sixth form is a major moment in anyone’s education. Not only does it mark the point when a student’s participation in formal learning becomes effectively voluntary, but it is also the last moment, under the system in place in England since the 1940s, that pupils study a broad range of subjects.

From the moment that GCSE results are announced, the further and higher education systems funnel students towards academic specialisation. Fields of learning get constricted, becoming narrower and narrower.

But there is an increasing amount of evidence that a lot of people – including employers and students themselves – are bridling at the false choice about whether they are "arts people" or "science people". They understand that as technology increases its influence over every aspect of our lives, there is also a growing need to humanise that technology.

That is surely why liberal arts and sciences is becoming an increasingly popular choice for students who enjoyed the diversity and scope that studying eight or more subjects at GCSE brought them. 

Data from Unifrog – an online service that helps students make choices about what and where to study – shows interdisciplinary liberal arts courses were the most commonly shortlisted subject by students due to start university next year. For students due to start in 2021 who have just finished their GCSEs, it is beaten by only medicine and law.

And it is not just students who understand this value. Some of the most admired employers in this country and across the world are realising that we require people who can think and do across different disciplines.

These are the guiding principles helping us to create the London Interdisciplinary School – a new university-to-be, which will open its doors in the capital next year. The demand is already there. We know from the hundreds of expressions of interest we have already received. 

Liberal arts has long been the cornerstone of US degrees – and its growing attractiveness is part of the reason why the numbers of British undergraduates studying at American universities has soared by 45 per cent in the past decade, according to figures from the US government.

When I led the set-up of the original Bachelor of Arts and Sciences course at University College London in 2010, it was the first of its kind in the 21st century. There were earlier versions in the pre-internet age at the universities of Sussex and Keele, for instance, but a combination of dated ideas about "expertise" and institutional inertia meant that very little radical innovation in undergraduate education had happened for some time. At UCL, along with the universities of Birmingham and King’s College London, we were 21st-century trailblazers, but around 20 British universities now run liberal arts courses where students can range across academic disciplines. The idea that at 16, 17 or 18 everyone must decide on a narrow range of subjects that they want to study now looks increasingly out of date.

But what our new venture, the London Interdisciplinary School, is doing is different from courses that allow students to simply pick and mix. Our curriculum, based on urgent, real-world problems, will allow students to break down the barriers between different academic disciplines, find meaningful connections between them and thus understand large, complex issues with lots of moving parts. Students will be expected to look at different approaches that can each provide part of the answer.

Take an issue like childhood obesity. To get a proper understanding of this problem, the person tackling it needs to understand how genes might make some children more disposed to putting on weight. They need to understand how to use data to plot and maybe even predict which children might be most affected. Then there is the need to get underneath the skin of how marketing works, and the sociology of how children spend their free time and what influences these choices. All of these perspectives are important. Without them, a complex problem will never be fully understood and, crucially, tackled.

The ability of our students to function in this way is an important reason why large organisations have already agreed to work with us, providing paid placements to our students. In this context, it is my view that the journey that many pupils will be making from September, from the breadth of GCSE to the narrowness of English, art and history or maths, physics and chemistry at A level, doesn’t help develop such skills. 

Globalisation and the effects of technology are reshaping every profession anyone can think of. Increasingly, graduate jobs now require a combination of knowledge coming from the science and non-science worlds. Even in technology, this is starting to happen. A wave of new books published in the US laid part of the blame for the tech industry’s image woes on its failures to understand the context in which its products are used – for example, how “bad actors” have repeatedly taken over social networks. Meanwhile, technology itself continues to disrupt the technology sector at least as much as it disrupts other industries. Our LIS students will study coding, but equally important is understanding the context of coding, associated ethical issues and the way in which coding itself is changing. As Microsoft president Brad Smith said in a book he recently co-authored: “As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important.”

To understand the problems and potential of the future, it will be necessary to unlock a synthesis based on understanding both what makes us human and the tools that allow humans to advance. We are becoming an interdisciplinary society, where people will have multiple careers running at the same time, with multiple areas of expertise. Setting people on this pathway, and helping them create an understanding of problems that can’t be addressed from just one viewpoint, is a new challenge for all types of education. But our students will increasingly demand it. As the students getting their GCSE results wave goodbye to a broad-based education, one could understand if some of them sense that doors which should be opening are actually closing. At LIS, we are opening those doors again to those who seek a broader and more contemporary education.

Carl Gombrich, formerly professorial teaching fellow in interdisciplinary education at UCL, is academic lead and part of the founding team at LIS

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