Re: Columbia and 4-fields

Ralph L Holloway (rlh2@COLUMBIA.EDU)
Tue, 4 Apr 1995 11:21:13 -0400

I certainly appreciate Bob Thgorton's very thoughtful post re: the four
fields, and understand very well the conundrum posed by 'just' four
subdisciplines, when maybe there are really 8 or 35, for all I know.
Interdiscplinary meeting-of-the-mind approaches are fine, except that
these "meetings" are often terrobly constrained. One lecture here,
another there, and usually no framework of advance readings, enough
discussion time, eyc., etc. The push at Columbia against the four-fields
(linguistics died, including the Linguistics Dept. per se about 5 years
ago, as did Geography, Library Science, etc), is to get rid ofbreadth
requirements which were viewqed as interfering with the really important
po-mo stuff. Ask anyone at our Department and they will all fall over
their tongues in haste to say how wonderful interdisciplinary stuff is,
and how they love to hear about the fusing of borders, blah, blah, and
lets tyry to go to Weds. afternoon seminars more frequently, etc, etc. I
am sorry, but without a militia or police-state attitude in place, this
simply doesn't work. Not to mention that knowledge is cumulative, and its
well and good to read Oliver Sacks "Anthropologist on Mars", but it would
be helpful to know something about the brain and its evolution
beforehand. (Yes, it was suggested by one soc/cult person that a reading
of Ann Faust-Sterling's Myths of Gender and Oliver Sacks would be a way
to replace any breadth requirements in physical anthropology, all of
which I would agree should be read, albeit crtitically, but this means
roughly total ignorance regarding the relevance of these texts.). I don't
imaginne for one moment that the traditional (termed "archaic") way of
teaching four-fields as separate entities leaves much to be desired, but
throwing the baby out with the bath water is not the best way of
proceding either. When I teach Human Evolution (graduate course, which
now only interested undergraduates take) or Dynamics of Human Evolution
(undergraduate seminar) students must read widely in the neurosciences,
cognitive psychology, and must read and be able to discuss each week's NY
Times Science Section (some of it excellent, some lousy) to get some feel
for what's happening and how it relates to our views of ourselves and a
species with an evolutionary past. It is about as synthetic as it can
get, and I really chafe when someone puts the label "archaic" on it,
simply because it is perceived as "physical anthropology"! For 31 years I
have been teaching this way, and can teach reasonably well human skeletal
biology, human biological diversity, fossil evidence for human evolution
or paleoanthropology, and the evolution ogf the brain and behavior, and
can talk with reasonable intelligence about molecular genetics and
evolution. I regard that as a fair amount of knowledge that is being
labeled as "archaic", and frankly wasted. I've seen and participated in
those courses where each faculty member comes in to a class and teaches
his and her shtick for 2 or 3 weeks. It is inevitably a watered down mess
which neither student o or faculty find satisfying. In fact, we despise it.
I don't have any real answers, and maybe the traditional approach is
defective, but until something with depth and integrative potential has
been proven I stick by my conservative views, and decry the loss of
something more valuable than not.
Ralph Holloway.