Every Tuesday at 2 pm I enter a room full of people that know what they want.
“Why did you choose Computer Science as a degree?” I ask.
“Because I like coding, and that’s always been my passion.”
“Because I like to design apps.”
“Because I would like to end up working at Google.”
“Because I want money” says someone.
I remember the first day of lectures, when they didn’t know who I was. As they saw me in just one of their modules, my current friends thought I was just skipping all of the others.
Three years ago, here at the University of Surrey, a new degree started called Liberal Arts and Sciences. Today it has five students in second year and eight in first year, and nobody from Surrey has graduated in it yet. Apart from these numbers, that sound a bit raw and cold, what’s really interesting to find out is what this degree is actually about. To explore it briefly but fully, I will first of all give a short overview of what Liberal Arts and Sciences involves in terms of subjects. Secondly, I will portray the personalities that are currently pursuing this challenging pathway at Surrey. Finally, I’ll make a couple of considerations about interdisciplinarity and its crucial importance for us who practice it.
Traditionally, the Liberal Arts are those subjects that during the Classical Era – the Greco-Roman period – were considered essential for the development of a free person. Particularly, the arts of debating and reasoning logically. Nowadays, liberal arts education includes specific areas of social sciences, history, philosophy, natural sciences and psychology. At Surrey, a student of Liberal Arts and Sciences can choose a main and a secondary pathway from a list of seven. Some examples of combinations are Social Sciences and a language, or Social Sciences and Literature. Very specific sciences are also available to combine, such as Engineering, Physics and Computer Science. The question is: what kind of student decides to combine something like Engineering and Film Studies? And why?
The personalities that Liberal Arts and Sciences has brought to Surrey are diverse, peculiar and intriguing to meet. Their interests vary from fashion to anthropology, sociology and hard sciences. What I’ve found as a common characteristic in all those students is a sort of restlessness, a really complex eagerness for knowledge and communication. Those who tried to explain to me why they chose a “liberal” degree, said they felt like they had no other choice than that of not choosing. Liberal Arts students are running after an idea, following something they cannot identify yet. That restlessness they share comes from a slight constant and vital inquietude, similar to that someone would have after being used to being lost. In fact, Liberal Arts and Sciences is more of a state of mind that a degree: barely anyone in it knows where they’re going to be in the next ten years. This is not quite common for a University student, as they start having more clarified ideas as they get closer to making their choice. But choosing Liberal Arts and Sciences essentially means refusing to even decide what to have tomorrow morning for breakfast.
I’ve been criticised a few times for my degree, and been told that us “liberal artists and scientists” will end up doing nothing in our lives. There is a common myth about interdisciplinarity being a complete waste of time, and about uncertainty being almost a curse. Everything we can reply to this is that we are preparing for the least certain future. This is not a demonstration of mere utilitarianism, but an inclination that we can just follow and see where it brings us. It is not an easy road, and it takes patience and determination.
What is also very important for Liberal Arts and Sciences students is to gain a sort of recognition – which doesn’t mean categorisation – in order to raise awareness of the complexity of the pathway. This complexity is just partially academic: it is mainly a moral and emotional challenge that involves practicing what many still refuse to engage with.
Interdisciplinarity is rewarding and complete, and brings its students to a state of what a famous writer named Goethe would have called sehnsucht: the desire of desiring.
Text and photo by Lara Dal Molin