Bipartisan Politics and Higher Education
February 15, 2012
by Patricia Leavy
Mountain Weekly News
Americans have long grown sick of political in-fighting. Our leaders seem unable to get anything done because they're too busy waving their party flag and flat-out refuse to work together to solve our many pressing problems. Politicians are in a game of Color-War that is reminiscent of kids' summer camp. However, the consequences are very grown-up. The failure of our leaders to work together responsively and responsibly grows more tiring as our problems increase. What many Americans may not realize is that the same fruitless grid-lock has long plagued higher education, although perhaps less visibly.
Academics are charged with teaching the next generation and conducting research on issues of import- roles that impact all Americans. Academics often hear that we are in ‘ivory towers' disconnected from the real-world we aim to understand-implying we are useless. Unfortunately, the structure of higher education makes this somewhat true.
Academic institutions are based on disciplinarity-teaching students the content of individual, specialized disciplines (such as biology, psychology, etc.) and conducting small-scale research within disciplines. Academic researchers are pressured to work within these confines in order to receive grants and promotions. As a result, the natural sciences, social sciences and business are positioned as separate camps, competing for scarce resources. The problem is that, just like in Washington, academics can't solve real-world problems or properly train students how to do so within this model. The major challenges of our time-such as sustainability, health and well-being, the environment, violence- cannot be solved through the lens of any one discipline. Researchers need to work together. Here's an example that impacts us all: Cancer research.
We are all impacted by high rates of cancer, if not personally than through someone we know. We all have a vested interest in cancer research and teaching the next generation of innovative health researchers. Cancer research obviously has biological/medical components such as family history/genetics, physiological abnormalities, etc. However, disparities in cancer rates across different groups point to social issues that also impact the health profile of a group or community. These factors include: access to healthcare and screenings, access to quality healthcare, the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of specific health education programs for different groups, and the ways that gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion influence health screenings.
In addition to biological and social issues, differences in cancer rates have environmental dimensions such as: exposure to toxic materials (sometimes through one's job), pollution (air and water quality) and food quality (for example, the availability and price of organics).
In short, natural scientists, social scientists and environmental scientists need to forge trans-disciplinary coalitions in order to understand and respond to the cancer crisis. This would mean that the problem at-hand, not allegiance to any one discipline, dictates our response and pushes us to work together responsively. Higher education-the major institution of research and teaching-simply isn't set up to facilitate this work. The public has the right to expect researchers to pool all available resources in service of public needs and to train college graduates to do the same. Whether it's in the White House or ‘ivory tower' we need to restructure powerful organizations so that leaders can stop working to keep their jobs and start doing their jobs.
About the Author
Patricia Leavy, PhD is a sociology professor, author, expert commentator and internet radio show host as well as a leading qualitative researcher with a dozen books to her credit. She is the author of the new book, Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research: Using Problem-Centered Methodologies (Left Coast Press, 2011). Please visit www.patricialeavy.com for more information.
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