submitted by guru Interview on Research

As a kid, I spent all of my free time at a computer, soaking up as much as I could about how it worked on every level. All that exploration really made my career possible.
But I didn’t have great grades in school, because I had a hard time developing a curiosity about much beyond the computer. My dad always said, “You need to be more well-rounded,” and he encouraged me to take on a sport or a musical instrument. But like many of the subjects in school, those things never really stuck for me when I was growing up.
As an adult, my interests have expanded far beyond the computer screen. In college I minored in photography, and at first it was a technical interest in the gear and the magic of the darkroom, but that quickly gave way a deeper interest in visual aesthetics, design, and the whole world of art and art history. I’ve found over time that similar links exist between all of my interests, and learning a new subject is only a matter of finding the right bridge from my current interests.
I imagine this is how most people learn. So why do we make these distinctions between “math”, “biology”, “history”, and “art”, when they are all linked, and when the interconnections so often make them meaningful? Is it OK if children are not “well-rounded,” as long as they are following their curiosities, or does a lack of “well-roundedness” mean we are not exposing them to enough bridges to new interests?
Sir Ken: I think he’s completely right about this. One of the points I make in the TEDTalk, and that I make generally, is that the human mind is essentially created. We live in worlds that we have forged and composed. It’s much more true than any of the species that you see. I mean, it seems to me that one of the most distinctive features of human intelligence is the capacity to imagine, to project out of our own immediate circumstances and to bring to mind things that aren’t present here and now. You know, to conceive of the past, to anticipate the future, and not just a future but multiple possible futures and many different sorts of pasts.
So this capacity for imagination, to me, is absolutely at the heart of this whole argument.Creativity to me is a step on. Creativity is putting your imagination to work and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture. I mean, it is really the foundation of human culture, I believe. And it’s generated multiple ways of looking at the world, multiple ways of seeing it, multiple ways of thinking about it.
What happened over the course of the development of our public institutions is that these different ways of thinking tend to become formalized into subjects. Schools and universities are built upon different forms of knowledge, and the way we most commonly think about them is as subjects.
And I think subjects is a poor idea, really, for the kind of work I’m interested to promote, because it suggests that the world is definable into entirely different sorts of content or subject matter. And this really matters to me, because what happens then is that people are employed at institutions to teach these things, and to teach their own sort of specialism, so that math becomes separate from languages. It becomes separated from science, and you know it’s a different subject because it’s on a Thursday and it’s taught by different people. It’s less true in elementary school, and especially true in high schools. But what we also know about knowledge is that its constantly evolving and morphing and mutating, and the history of ideas, the history of leading edge thinking is of the constant reconfiguration of disciplines and of concepts.
So now, we live in an age where there are multiple variations of different disciplines — the merging of physics and chemistry and of engineering and genetics. And the problem is that schools and institutions are often slow to keep up with these changes. They often run far ahead of institutions’ capability to respond to them.
So, I think, firstly, I think this question pokes at an informed truth. I think it’s seeing connections rather than differences which is the heart, I believe, of human progress. And we spend a lot of time, in the West particularly I think, insisting on ways of thinking that are based on seeing differences rather than seeing relationships. You know, formal logic is a bit like that. It’s seeing clear distinctions. Well, distinctions are important, but relationships are equally important. You see it especially in areas like medicine, where you have people specializing in one organ or another organ without looking at the whole organism. So, schools, I think, tend to compound that.
I want, really, to get away from the idea of subjects and I think disciplines is a much better idea. A discipline suggests something which is a kind of an amalgam, a mixture of concepts, of practical skills, of techniques, of ideas, of data. I mean, mathematics isn’t really a subject. It’s a whole series of different sorts of disciplines. And I think that’s true of music. Music isn’t really a subject, but practicing music involves extraordinary levels — different levels — of ideas, of practical skills, of sensibility.
So, I think part of the problem that we make these distinctions is historical and I think our guy here, guru, is right, that the way that I might think about education is from a much dynamic and fluid set of relationships between different forms of knowledge, different ways of thinking.
But I also think the second part is true as well. That is, I agree with the second point which is that one of the results of this overspecialization is that people do lose a sense of balance. We spend too much time, very often, focused on our particular area and lose sight of the larger picture. So when he says “Is it OK if children are not well-rounded as long as they follow their curiosities?” I don’t think so, really. I mean, I think it’s important for us all to find our particular passions and our strengths, but I think it’s equally important that we can at least pull back and look into other fields and other disciplines to see connections.