True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study – Ellen White
Once upon a Princeton semester, I journeyed from the corridors of the Engineering Quadrangle, through the Shapiro Walk, flanked between the glass-windowed, rooftop-gardened ORFE (Operations Research and Financial Engineering) building and the Engineering Library, past the Woodrow Wilson School, and entered the 1879 Hall, where I enrolled in a History of Science course.
I dare say few trod this path, for why would an engineer willingly “inflict” upon themselves the trouble of reading, discussing, and writing papers for a Humanities class, especially when it’s not required?
As for me, I was simply feeling exploratory. It is also worth mentioning that I suck at Humanities classes. I’m not particularly good at writing Humanities papers, I dread class discussions, and I lack the skill to ask the right analytical questions for the materials at hand.
Although the course title bore the word “Science,” the class felt worlds away from my daily reality over at the EQuad. It was philosophical, historical–for a lack of a better description–and naturally, I struggled, but managed, to keep up.
You could say it was a detour from my academic orbit.
The Siloed Education
What was most fascinating about this experience, however, was not how foreign the content of the class was to me. Instead, it was my full ignorance that the Philosophy department was housed in a building that I passed by almost every day. I had no idea about what took place in this space that I was familiar with.
Institutions of learning are architecturally organized by departments and disciplines. Each lives within their own space, with occasional crossing in some interdisciplinary efforts. This makes perfect sense in terms of collaboration efforts and administrative activities within the department, minimizing the travel time for frequent internal meetings between faculty members and the student bodies. For the sciences, it makes sense to build laboratory infrastructures in localized areas.
This architectural layout reflects the realities of modern day knowledge, which is segmented by disciplines. As a result, though, students rarely pass through buildings that are not their home departments. More importantly, students rarely interact with those in other fields, especially as they delve deeper into their majors in the latter years of undergraduate studies, and more so in graduate studies. It seems to me that the deeper we go into our academic pursuit, the more disconnected we are to others outside of our circuit.
Even though we occupy the same spaces, namely the university, our realities are tangential to each other, co-existing but barely touching,
Assuming that everyone who reads this was born within the last 200 years, this separation of disciplines in education systems is all that we know. It is simply the way our world is organized, and it is hard to imagine an alternative.
The compartmentalization of knowledge, however, is a relatively recent construct in human history, designated to organize the growing body of academic knowledge during the last two centuries. Beginning in the early 19th century, following the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, and coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, the idea that specialties in a single area (whether in education or manufacturing processes) can produce much gain and efficiency took off.
The fruits of this compartmentalization have multiplied and reproduced spectacularly. Each field has discovered much depth and vastness in its subjects and the benefits are plentiful. Advances in health, medicines, and technologies had increased life expectancies; engineering practices empowered life conveniences and mass production of goods; economics and market understanding have incentivized development worldwide.
Yet, even with this vast body of knowledge, there are still problems that are difficult to address, partly because of the segmented nature of our expertise.
An Argument for Integration
Edgar Morin, French philosopher and sociologist, eloquently explains why these silos of knowledge are imperfect.
See the full interview here.
For one, it has troubles with addressing complex problems with the proper complexity. These are the ones with vast scope, like poverty, the inefficient distribution of food around the world, climate change, environmental degradation, pollution and waste, social justice issues, etc. By nature, these problems require the interplay of multiple disciplines.
Morin argues that there is a need to contextualize knowledge–historically, geographically–“inserting it into the whole [reality] to which it belongs.” For example, “economists who have developed a precise social science based on calculations, are powerless in the face of crises” because humans don’t just obey economic laws, but also many other laws beyond economics.
In a particular poignant sentence, Morin says, “While calculation is useful, it cannot comprehend the suffering and the human problems of our lives.” You cannot calculate human suffering.
The tendency to tell single narratives–seeing and slicing a problem exclusively with a singular point of view–is, I think, stemmed from these separations of disciplines. We don’t know what we don’t know, so how can pivot our perspective?
Does this, then, cause us to miss opportunities at solving complex problems with cohesive solutions that would not solve one and create another problem?
What if, the assumption that learning needs to take place in only one department is challenged? Can education be multifaceted? And what kind of fruits would it produce in society?
Perhaps the more pertinent questions are those posed to the individual. How can we be conscientious learners, who can both learn and contextualize knowledge? How do we make sure, while we are submerged in our respective fields, that we remember the full reality, that life is greater than just our world?
Memorial Day 2015. Three months after our wedding day, my financially recovering husband and I opted for a local getaway to Galena, IL, a small tourist town by the Mississippi River. We wanted to see the river, to which my sister responded, “Huh? Why?” She was right to question us—we were probably only inspired by some vague, romantic notion of the river from literature (Twain).
Off we went to Galena. Honestly, we’re not really small-town America type of tourists. The few times we do this type of getaway, we run out of things to do. I guess we’re not into antiques and fruity jams that much, and we also look for Chinese food by the 5th meal or so…
But there was one thing that left an impression on me, which was our visit to the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, IA, across the river from Galena.
Naturally, there was an exhibit on steamboats with Mark Twain quotes sprinkled throughout the gallery walls. A well-crafted miniature of a steamboat was displayed, and I stared at it for quite a while.
Certainly, steam engines marked the dawn of technological and industrial overhaul, powering engines for various large-scale, useful work. They enabled steamboats and later on, railway locomotives, means to transport large masses of both humans and goods across the country. As the mechanical principles of their operations were understood and developed further, they became ancestors of modern turbines and internal combustion engines, from which we benefit each day.
Technologically, steamboats were a major accomplishment. But, they were more than technological artifacts; they were also human artifacts.
I paused in front of the steamboat miniature, troubled. It was blatantly obvious to me that the architecture was designed to mimic and enforce social strata. There were three levels—the lowest for the workers, who had to toil through shifts to keep the boat going; the second level for those who paid to travel and dine on the boat for business or leisure; the third mainly for the pilot. Perhaps it was just my 21st century pair of eyes, but these visible and intentionally constructed separations, sectioned by mere wooden floors, produced a discomfort.
The Haves and Have-nots were separated. The Have-nots toiled for the Haves, which on the steamboat meant constantly feeding wood to the furnace that boiled large amount of water for steam. These boilers were prone to overheating and explosions—indeed, most steamboats were destroyed by fire—and were not the most pleasant working environment, understatedly. Children worked on the boat too, and accidents did not discriminate.
Facts of life, one may say. It is just the way of the world, no different now than in the past.
Maybe. How could people be so oblivious to the things that went on, literally, under their feet? How could human worlds be so different and separated while occupying the very same vessel?
As steamboats traversed the Mississippi River, they also caused massive deforestation along the riverbank. Trees were cut down to produce wood for fuel. Environmentally, this was a disaster. Deforested riverbanks, unstable and prone to erosions, resulted in severe flooding that would occur for decades, many years after steamboats no longer graced the Mississippi.
The Appeal and Inadequacy of a Single Narrative
Steamboats were not just technological artifacts, nor societal, nor environmental artifacts. They were all of the above and more. One could slice this reality into a single narrative and tell an exclusively good or tragic story, but it would, at best, be partially true. The danger of a single narrative comes when it is accepted in pure disregard of other possible narratives, solely labeling something as good or bad without acknowledging the alternative.
The problem is, for one reason or another, we tend to respond better to single narratives. They are easy to explain and easy to remember. On paper, single narratives present a coherent and explainable reality that appeal to the public, translating into, say, book sales or political appeal. When something that we believe as good reveals a darker side, or vice versa, our minds have a hard time resolving the two. How can something good be bad?
Yet in the real reality, many human inventions are both good and bad. One aspect is rightfully celebrated, but another facet reveals something sinister in the shadow. In reality, multiple narratives can exist at the same time.
As an engineer, I could probably be forgiven for telling the story of the steamboat as a technological wonder and ignore its other aspects. But, as follows from above, there’s a great insufficiency with this practice.
How can one adamantly celebrate “progress” when humans and the environment come as an expense? How can one be spellbound by the beauty and grandeur of human inventions, and forgetting that they were built on the backs of other humans?
Don’t get me wrong, I think accomplishments should be celebrated. What I’m advocating is a kind of celebration that’s not ignorant, but one that is conscientious. It is a celebration with certain awareness (and ownership) of their possible “dark sides” and with resolve to do better in the future.
When it comes to safety and sustainability, technology learns. Though, it doesn’t usually happen until after some major catastrophes take place and government imposed regulations with severe economic penalties are enacted. My question is, Is this the only way we learn to fix mistakes and design better systems?
I can’t help asking the what-if questions. What if the engineers, designers, and all those involved in designing the steamboats were cognizant of safety both for humans and the environment? Would they have come up with a better version of the steamboat?
These hypothetical questions are impossible to answer since we only have one version of history. Plus, hindsight is 20/20.
But now that we have hindsight, can we do something about our foresight?
Can we be more mindful of the multiple narratives involved in a given situation? Can we work to integrate them somehow?
The business argument says, “It will take too long and too much money. We need to take risks; we can’t move on only when everything is perfect,” which has its legitimacy, within its economic narrative. But this is only one of the narratives at play…
These questions swim in my head and I don’t yet know how to reconcile them. All I know is that I see systems like the steamboats and I crave for something more. There has to be something better; there has to be a better way of doing things. As I live and work, I want to be that holistic engineer and human being who is not adamantly fixed on a single narrative.
Time is something fleeting that’s barely felt in the present. Things move and change in time, but in the present, they are often imperceptible because we, the observers, move along with them. Only when we “pause and reflect,” metaphorically taking ourselves out of the moving system, can we see the changes around us that are in fact pretty drastic.
The easiest example of this is observing a growing infant or toddler. The parents or siblings may not notice the height change as much as a distant relative who sees the child once a year. “Oh, he/she’s grown so much,” they say. The same changes, in proximity, are not as dramatic.
Since dramatic narratives are really appealing, I take quite a bit of pleasure doing the exercise of zooming out and observing things at a macro level. At this vantage point, storylines become larger than life. One of these exercises is studying timelines.
Timelines tell grand stories of how the world has altered. They can reveal things that may be imperceptible over years, decades, or even generations.
Usually, timelines are created for specific narratives, for example the timelines of U.S. presidents, American history, or the French Revolution, etc. While these are already fascinating, what fascinates me even more is overlaying these specific timelines into a more complete picture.
I call this the “vertical slice”—it’s when you have multiple timelines with time (e.g., year, centuries, etc.) as the horizontal axis, overlaid on top of each other do compared side-by-side, and you draw a vertical line at a particular time point. A different story then emerges. This vertical slice in time shows what things happened concurrently at a given point.
This is really a simple pivot in data visualization, but as data analysts know, merely inverting the x- and y- axis sometimes reveals different perspectives of the same data set. What’s amazing about data analysis these days is the technological advancement that allows more and more capabilities to tell stories out of complex data.
Back in 2011, I worked on several simple timelines that have continued to be the most visited posts on my old blog. Today, I’m about to embark on a fun data visualization project again. Along the way, I’m also trying to learn more about good principles of data visualization, so if you have recommendations on related books or resources, let me know!