From the Desk of Barbara Robertson

What should colleges and universities teach? This age-old question has taken on new relevance as we scrutinize the assumptions underpinning our civic and educational institutions.

It turns out a good deal of creative thinking has gone into curriculum reform in recent years, and the results in some cases have been intriguing.

A notable example is narrative medicine, which according to a recent fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times, is “a discipline in which doctors and nurses use the principles of literature and art to better understand patients’ stories and incorporate them into their practices.” In essence, clinicians are taught to become storytellers so they can better communicate with patients and other nonprofessionals.

Columbia University launched the nation’s first graduate program in narrative medicine 11 years ago, and the concept has rapidly gained adherents. The LA Times reports that USC’s Keck School of Medicine will introduce the country’s second master’s program in narrative medicine this fall, and the subject has been adopted elsewhere, including the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. The Journal of the American Medical Association and its sister journals have published dozens of narrative medicine essays this year alone.

In a similar vein, the Program in Law and Humanities at the University of Virginia School of Law explores connections between law and disciplines such as philosophy, literature, and politics. Stanford University’s Law Program in Modern Thought and Literature is an interdisciplinary doctoral program that enables students to combine study in one or more humanities or social science disciplines with law. I am sure there are many more such programs nationwide.

Nor is the trend limited to graduate and professional schools. Undergraduate curricula have been steadily revised and expanded for years.

Cross-disciplinary teaching and research are nothing new, of course, and college curricula have always evolved. Still, I think we’re seeing a growing recognition on the part of at least some educators and administrators that postsecondary instruction should not be too narrowly focused, and that exposure to indirectly relevant subject matter can enhance intellectual inquiry.

Academic disciplines and professional training programs should not be seen as information silos in which learning is rigidly confined to the specialized knowledge of a given field. Where appropriate, we should strive to incorporate elements from a range of academic traditions and perspectives, the underlying notion being that boundaries should not be unnecessarily imposed on knowledge creation. All education matters, be it in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, trades, or professions.

What does it mean to be an educated person in the 21st century? It means recognizing the value of knowledge in its many guises, and understanding that each can have surprising applications.

Versions of this commentary have appeared on Noozhawk and in the Santa Maria Times.