I have been thinking about a question for a while and now finally get to organize my thoughts into a somewhat coherent form. The question is whether universities’ adherence to a strict distinction of disciplines still makes sense (although, I guess this would apply to industry as well). Let me weave a (grim?) tale for you.
Currently, universities are in the business of handing out hats. The hats bear the crests of many kingdoms such as Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, or Rhetorics. They are worn by many a traveler as a sign of their journey of exploration through the realms of Academia However, these hats often seem uncomfortable, not fitting the heads of the travelers as much as they probably should. I can only speak from my experiences with Computer Science curricula. To me it seems that we do not distinguish — or even seem to care — about the fact that the roads travelers take through the different baronies, such as Software engineering, Human Computer Interaction, Networks, or Systems, shape their heads in very specific, sometimes even unique ways. All that seems to matter is that, at the end of the road, the travelers are anointed with the holy symbols of our order: the hat of a Bachelor of Science (M.S., Ph.D.) in Computer Science.
The trouble I see is that, on the road ahead leading through the fabled realm of Work Life, it is the shape of the head that really counts, not the hat that we place on it. As a person much more eloquent than myself has said: “der Weg ist das Ziel” (the journey is the destination). The unique skills that the students have acquired throughout their arduous travel across the different baronies of our disciplines is what really makes them a good candidate for a future quest. And that uniqueness is somewhat hidden in the label we call “transcript” attached to the inside of the hat. Yet instead of detailing the path that the traveler has taken, they are phrased as riddles that only the sages familiar with the manufacturer of the hat can solve. “Introduction to Computer Graphics and Graphical User Interfaces” one whispers, hiding a path through the meadows of the barony of HCI. “Computer Systems” mocks another, only hinting at the dangerous route through the rough, shark-infested seas of the barony of Systems. Even worse, the riddles bear the handwritings of the guides that have led the traveler through the swamps and forests of the different parts of the kingdom.
Thus, the question arises: why do we cling so strictly to handing out hats, if the chances of anyone not familiar with the different paths of our universities cannot glean a hint of the unique head hidden underneath the hat. Should we change our ways to no longer be caught in a system that more resembles a hat factory than a company of guides that lead travelers through treacherous areas, in the process uniquely shaping those they guide. Can we somehow replace the hats of grand orders with the badges of honor that travelers earn through surviving the hardships of their uniquely chosen paths? Should we not tear down the fences that prevent travelers from crossing the borders of the fiefdoms that are our disciplines?
Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to these questions. However, I am looking for kindred spirits that are not entirely content with the status quo (because the status is not quo…). Maybe together we will be able to blaze new trails through the lands of higher education that can help young travelers to follow the path that intrigues them most, that helps them to achieve their highest potential, that helps them discover and shape who their are.