Downsizing Higher Education: Disciplinarity at the Expense of Interdisciplinarity?

At a time in our world history when more people, not fewer, are needed who have both an acute awareness of the implications of globalization and a capacity to think across those cultural and linguistic barriers created by nationalisms everywhere, it is not immediately self-evident why the University of Toronto would choose to close its Center for Comparative Literature. Founded by the celebrated theorist Northrop Frye, the center has a 40-year history of pedagogical and scholarly success in precisely this kind of global and cross-cultural work.

Nor is there much clear logic, given our particular world situation at this moment, why such interdisciplinary and non-Eurocentric groupings such as the East Asian Department, the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, the Centre for International Studies, and the Centre for Ethics, should be “disestablished” as well.

The move back to departmental disciplinary hegemony and what will be perceived as a Eurocentric focus will be seen by many as a retrograde step for an institution that had prided itself, and rightly so, on its vibrant interdisciplinary and transnational/global intellectual environment of cultural exchange.

The economic situation is to blame, we are told. Cuts must be made, hard decisions taken. But it might be counterproductive to make relatively small economic gains at the expense of large intellectual losses — and not just of faculty and students, though their loss is, sadly, inevitable. There are larger implications for higher education everywhere in this kind of move to disciplinarity at a time when precisely what is needed is an ability to think outside more than boxes. To deal with the complex realities of today’s world, we need to be able to think outside our disciplinary silos, to think across those borders that separate us from speaking to and learning from others in diverse fields with fruitfully differing perspectives.

Despite its name, Comparative Literature at Toronto and elsewhere does not just study literature, just as so-called language departments do not just teach language. Neither language nor literature exists in a vacuum: It is an entire culture — in all its forms and discourses — that is being taught and learned. Self-reflexive cross-cultural knowledge, and more important, cross-cultural understanding are crucial today, and not only for institutions who should want to globalize their reach.

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In recent years, Comparative Literature, as a discipline, has added to its historical Eurocentric roots, a new concentration on both North/South and East/West cultural exchange. It has developed new interdisciplinary ways to examine the complicated interactions between different art forms and different cultural discourses.

The centers that have been closed housed some of the most intellectually engaged and thus most adventurous configurations of teachers and students. That scholarly creativity is what the institutionalization of interdisciplinarity has made possible, and indeed fostered.

Places like Stanford, with its strong Comparative Literature presence, have been leading the way in creating new frames of reference for both cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural study. Toronto was poised to do the same

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