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PostGEOGRAPHY: Interdisciplinary studies (Ronald Hilton, USA, 04/29/02 3:09 pm)
I commended the Stanford Administration for promoting interdisciplinary studies. Let's see now if it means business. A basic change is necessary, and a specific one will be a test case. The basic change: the administration of such programs must be put on a par with departmental administrations. The university has never interfered in departmental programs. It has split up programs into departments, as it did with Anthropology and Geography (which were originally in Humanities Special Programs), thus creating new departments, divided departments in two, as it has done with Anthopology, and it has abolished them, as it later did with Geography, which is the specific case described below. But it has not interfered in their actual programs. On the other hand, interdisciplinary programs have been held on a short leash (maximum five years). They must constantly justify their existence, notably Human Biology, which enjoys general respect The old Latin American program had two identical options, either within Modern European Languages, or as an interdepartmental program. The university would never have dreamed of interfering with the departmental program, but the interdepartmental one, which almost all students chose, was the subject of constant harassment. I spent an inhuman amount of time writing reports for different committees, until I finally decided that life was too short. The rest is history.
The specific case is Geography. When I came to the US in 1937, its universities were famous for their outstanding geography departments. There were two noteworthy exceptions: Harvard and Stanford, which had taken it as a model. Then Harvard James Conant, a chemist, tried to justify Harvard's lack of one by famously saying "Geography is not a university subject". The Presidents of private universities, like Cardinals heeding the Pope, spread the new doctrine. This happened just as the US was becoming a world power, making geography more important than ever. Stanford had created a Geography Department because the US government said it would not grant Stanford funds for area studies unless it had one. Conant's statement came conveniently as the grant was running out, so the department was abolished. Those interested in world affairs should have protested, but the various departments did not care.
State universities generally kept their geography departments; those of California at Berkeley and UCLA are outstanding. Chicago, a private university, had abolished its geography department, but revived it as an inter-departmental program, creating a model for Stanford. The United States is now involved more than ever in the complicated geography of the world. Let us see if Stanford performs a national duty by restoring geography as a respected interdisciplinary program. The parts are there. They could be put together easily if there were the will to do so. We shall see.