In Defense of the Unusual Education

This piece was originally published in NYU Gallatin’s Publication Confluence. Click here for the original published version. 

By now, I’ve rehearsed my answer to the inevitable question through countless introductions. At parties, huddled in a circle, conversation competing with the music, the usual questions spiral their way around the group: Name? Where are you in the city? How do you know so and so? Are you in school? What’s your major?

Generally, answers range in length from one to two words, perhaps more for a double major. “Economics,” “Computer Science,” “Urban Design,” “Linguistics,” it usually goes. When it’s my turn the words come out of my mouth so practiced they no longer feel like my own: “Well…I go to this School in NYU called Gallatin which is the School of Individualized Studies. You basically make up your own major. I’m concentrating in Creativity, Ideation, and Where Good Ideas Come from, at least now, though I could see it changing.” 

Generally, I restrain myself from going any further, but if I get a “so what does that involve?” my friends look at me knowingly, and I am off for the next 10 minutes.

It is time, I’ve decided, to put these thoughts to paper. This essay is the answer.

New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Studies is, shall we say, non-traditional. Instead of the “explore for a year or so then declare a major” model, Gallatin students never have one. Instead, we slowly develop a concentration, in which students harness a variety of disciplinary lenses with which to look at an area of interest. The Neuroscience of Musical PerformanceThe Ethical Implications of Racist Historiography on Modern Day South AfricaPhilosophy of Science are some “typical sounding” Gallatin concentrations, though of course there are no “typical” concentrations—no two students study the same thing. 

As a byproduct of Gallatin’s sometimes hilarious class titles (“Baseball as a Road to God,” “Anarchism as Method,” etc), students’ ability to name their concentration whatever they please (my favorite ever being Pancakes and Their Metaphysical Implications: With a Focus in Syrup), and Gallatin’s overall quirky nature, Gallatin students have cultivated a reputation for being somewhat of the odd one out among NYU’s many various schools. 

One of the most common criticisms lobbed at Gallatin is that while surely our classes are engaging, intellectually stimulating, and no doubt fun, a Gallatin education lacks utility and marketability—“That sounds cool and all, but how are you going to use that?” From the outside looking in, many see Gallatin as a sort of bubble, an idealistic utopia where students can study anything they want without the consequences of the “real world.” As I will argue, a Gallatin—and more generally, an interdisciplinary—education does indeed have distinct advantages pertaining to our post-Gallatin existences. Though many seniors, alumni, professors, and Gallatin propaganda have proclaimed to me that “Gallatin is the place to be! Gallatin will change how you think for the better,” I never quite fully understood how. When I was a first-year, in something analogous to blind faith, I had some deep intuition that there was something about Gallatin classes and the way they interacted with each other that seemed to be stretching my brain beyond what I thought possible. Having pondered this mystery for some years now, the mechanisms behind the feelings have begun to crystallize: that Gallatin’s organizing principle—its interdisciplinarity—in fact mirrors creativity, the structure of our modern society, and even the process of thought itself.

Gallatin’s educational schema subverts many of the core tenets of traditional undergraduate education. In most schools, one chooses a predefined major after some (or in some cases none) amount of exploratory time, then works within the bounds of that major’s sometimes overly numerous requirements to achieve the completion of the major. In this way, the traditional educational paradigm is arranged vertically, that is, arranged in such a way where classes are “stacked” atop the last, increasing in specificity and specialty: “Economics 101,” “Economics 102,” etc. However at Gallatin, classes are arranged horizontally; students are encouraged to take classes in a broad variety of disciplines. Practically no Gallatin classes directly build off of previous ones. Intellectual progress is measured in breadth, not depth. 

The consequences of this shift are profound. A “learning of acquisition” or “learning of reinscription” can only take someone so far. If someone, for example, were to learn all of the mathematical formulas there ever were, in isolation, they would surely be a horrible mathematician. Good mathematicians have the ability to conceptualize such formulas abstractly, apply them in unique and novel ways, and use them as tools to solve new problems. Learning, at its best, is about creation. It is the creative process whereby one is given both the information itself, and the tools to digest, synthesize, and harness it in order to stretch the mind in new and unexpected ways. New ideas should not only be handed to the learner but also be able to be generated within them.

Interdisciplinarity, then, puts the structures in place that allow such a learning to occur. By mentally reaching far, in opposite directions, both hands outstretched simultaneously grasping at wholly separate disciplines, one is confronted with all sorts of paradoxes; multiple disciplinary perspectives of a single concept are necessarily such. To be exposed to and understand such varied perspectives as they exist however is not interdisciplinarity, but the closest that traditional higher education gets to it. The liberal arts education surely broadens a student’s horizons through a required investigation into the “liberal arts.” However, where it falls short of true interdisciplinarity is synthesis, interplay, and integration. True interdisciplinarity not only extends both hands outward grasping in either direction simultaneously, but further brings each hand back, examines and compares the contents of each, and attempts to shape and mold them into one, forming something entirely new.

Interdisciplinarity, like creativity, is an emergent phenomenon. Its integrated whole can not be fully understood through even the most rigorous analysis of its components. Interdisciplinarity is a quasi-combinatorial phenomenon whereby addition yields something altogether unfamiliar. 1 + 1 does not always equal 2. “If you always think that 1 + 1 is 2, you will never do anything different…1 + 1 is 3.” -Albert Adria, head chef of El Bulli, easily the world’s most innovative restaurant.1 Like a particle accelerator, disciplinary collisions smash into each other and form new novel elements previously unobserved. This is good learning: connection, overlap, confluence, a nexus. It is making anew.

  Let us return to the example of the mathematician. To be the best mathematician in the world, one can not merely just study mathematics. This would, to borrow a concept from the discipline, be analogous to “approaching the limit.” One would merely be trudging closer and closer to the top, never breaking through, ad infinitum. To be sure, anyone at the top of their field must have all of the prerequisite fundamentals, and be well versed in its happenings. However, this is merely the start. To be the best mathematician in the world would be to get outside of the discipline entirely, attempt to rid oneself of the biases that being submerged within it posed, try on a variety of different disciplinary glasses, and then at last, view mathematics from the outside through them, in all of its now revealed incompleteness. The mathematician studying mathematics and mathematics alone is a fish trying to study water. How are they to know of the rain?

“It is a common platitude that a complete acquaintance with any one thing, however small, would require a knowledge of the entire universe.” -William James.2

Evidence of my theoretical “best” mathematician can be found everywhere. For example, biologists winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry (and visa-versa) is a well-documented phenomenon, so much so that some are questioning the very category of the award.3 These biologists have a completely different sphere of knowledge than their chemist peers, and as such are sometimes counterintuitively better equipped to propel chemistry forward. They are able to easily identify its gaps having not “grown up” inside of the chemistry sphere, and see past its borders.

Furthermore, work, especially knowledge work, is becoming increasingly non-linear. It is far from unusual now to see “Philosophy Research Assistant,” “AI Software Engineer,” and “Financial Analyst,” in direct succession on a resume. Integrated interdisciplinarity builds within its students an adaptive, cumulative, learning. The unrelated is related. It is a point that applies just as well in academia as it does in the professional world. When one has such mental elasticity and adaptability to absorb the teachings of linguistics and art history and thrive in their interplay, one begins to understand that to have a non-linear career path is not a series of re-starts, but rather a building of one’s overall critical thinking. 

All throughout high school and into my first year at NYU, I had wanted to become a photojournalist. When I asked National Geographic photographer Erika Larsen what her best advice was to become a photojournalist, she told me photojournalists don’t, and in this day in age can’t, merely study photojournalism and photography. Rather, she said, most of the best National Geographic photojournalists were experts in various other fields who then took up an interest in photography. The engineer who becomes a photojournalist may have obvious initial difficulties breaking into the field, but what they lack in connections, I’d argue they more than make up for in their unique and distinct perspective. 

Deleuze famously argued that thought itself does not work linearly with a clearly defined starting and ending point.4 Rather, he argued, thought is nonlinear, starting from within and in the middle, weaving in, out, and through other tendrils, spontaneously intersecting, like a rhizome. Thought has no direction, no beginning, and no end. 

Surely there is not a better mirror of this image in the realm of educational philosophy than Gallatin. Interdisciplinarity mirrors thought itself—and surely our educational systems should do so! We do not form thoughts and insights with ends in mind—it is necessarily impossible. There is no goal or ends at the outset of thinking, dreaming, and imagining. They are processes, whose successful functioning depends on their unfolding, changing, and developing nature. So too is learning. If working towards and ends—a major—there is no space, no room, to generate. Columbia is famous for their “core curriculum,” in which every one of their students are tasked with completing the same ~1/3rd of their educational requirements collectively, even claiming that “It is the oldest singular curriculum in the United States.”5 I’d ask why is this something to brag about? It is inelastic, unmoving, and prescribed. Inherent in the very structure of “the major,” and even requirements themselves are the expulsion of so much unrealized creative possibility. 

What good learning, Gallatin, and interdisciplinarity affords us most goes well beyond any interdisciplinary mastery of a singular intellectual interest. What the unusual education provides is a way of thinking. To see Gallatin as lacking practical utility is to miss the fundamental nature of education. Critical thinking and practical utility are one in the same, and in fact is perhaps the most durable of higher education’s teachings.

  • Chef’s Table: Albert Adrià, Netflix (Netflix, 2018).
  • William James, “Great Men, Great Thoughts and the Environment,” The Atlantic Monthly, 1880.
  • Philip Ball, “Has the Chemistry Nobel Prize Really Become The Biology Prize?,” Chemistry World (Chemistry World, January 27, 2020).
  • Gilles Deleuze, Guattari Félix, and Brian Massumi, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Bloomsbury, 1980).
  • The Core Curriculum | Blue View | Columbia Undergraduate Admissions, YouTube (YouTube, 2020).
  • Using Format