Today's Idea: A New Society of Fellows

Acedemics,Ideas — Zac Townsend @ October 30, 2012 9:51 am

Before he stepped down as Harvard's president in 1933 and with Nazi rumblings overseas in Germany, Abbott Lawrence Lowell wished to break the stronghold of the German Ph.D. degree on American academic life, believing it stifled creativity with its overlong list of formal requirements. Lowell designed the Society of Fellows as an alternative to the Ph.D. Its relative freedom encourages members to pursue lines of thinking that transcend traditional academic disciplinary boundaries and allow them to focus their attention on larger questions more fundamental to society. [Wikipedia]

Now, today, you're required to have a PhD to apply to be a Junior Fellow! In this time when everyone is talking about interdisciplinary studies, why doesn't this program exist somewhere as originally designed?

The US ought to have a program that compares favorably to the All Souls Fellowship, which I imagine this would. Now keep in mind that there are institutions that have such programs -- Demos, New America Foundation, etc -- but academic institutions are unique in the freedom they can give. There can be no doubt that part of the reason lies with the greatness of university libraries and the faculty. As for the faculty, one wonders if they would accept the brilliance of one not formerly initiated, but that is all the more reason to accept the best.

It reminds me, but would not be identical to what Cesar Hidalgo says about Media Lab:

At the Media Lab, the whole goal that I see is that I have to be creative and I'm free to be creative, and I'm not constrained to a subject category. I don't need to be creative in chemistry, or I don't need to be creative in physics, or I don't need to be creative in policy. It's not about a subject category, the criticism of: well that is not, from the subject, it's not valid. What that creates is a group of people that have interaction between artists and technologies and designers and theoreticians and thinkers, and experimentalists, which all share a pursuit of freedom and of new ideas.

I find that it's a little bit paradoxical because this idea of pursuing creative freedom is the oldest idea in academic. The idea of an academic is someone that is doing something that nobody told him or her to do, someone that is running with his ideas and trying to make them happen. There might be people that think that those ideas are not worth even pursuing, they don't make sense. It might be that those ideas are not going to have applications in the next 200 years. Who knows? But it's an academic who will go away with his/her ideas, or take them where he or she wants.

I would say that this is something that nowadays is a little bit lost in academia, because there are subject categories that constrain the departments much more heavily, in many cases. The Media Lab doesn't have that problem. The Media Lab is a bit of the solution to that. We're going to do something that has to be cool, it has to be interesting, it has to be important, but we don't care in which subject it fits.


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