Congress 2015: “Athens to the new Romes”

Yesterday, the Governor General of Canada, David Johnston gave a lecture as part of Congress 2015‘s Big Ideas lecture series. The topic of his talk was “Education & Innovation,” but it was more of an exhortation for the assembled scholars and administrators to be innovative, rather than a prescription for how to bring innovation to colleges and universities.

His basic point is that the challenges now faced by human societies are far too complex to be addressed by a single discipline or approach. Johnston’s speech was really a plea for multi-disciplinarity, for working across disciplines and territorial borders.

Johnston expressed several interesting notions over his speech. One was the need to organize teaching and learning by challenge (such as, say, global warming or income inequality), not by discipline. This sort of problem-based learning would no doubt be valuable, although it may be difficult to structure all student learning around this type of approach. Drawing on the writings of former SSHRC head Chad Gaffield, Johnston also advocated for tearing down the distinction between teaching and research. Both are essentially forms of learning, one experienced primarily by students, and one conducted primarily by scholars. By uniting the two, by connecting students with curiousity and inquiry, learning can become a unified mission for the university. A very intriguing idea, and a possible way out of the increasingly circular arguments around teaching vs. research. But it is hard to imagine how such a mission could be created in a period of austerity and enhanced vocational focus. Still, a vision worth pursuing.

Johnston also argued for Canada to focus on the diplomacy of knowledge, to be the “Athens to the new Romes.” While other countries may seek economic or military power, Canada’s advantage could be in bringing people together around knowledge. This, he argues, will enhance people and societies while reducing conflict. Again, multi-disciplinarity is key to achieving this goal.

Johnston’s speech was short on prescription, and covered a great deal of ground in a short presentation. It was a call to action, one that will require the audience to fill in a lot of blanks. But the core message – the need for the humanities and social sciences to transcend disciplinary silos to remain relevance – is an important one for all of us to hear.