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Exploring the Relationships between Academic Disciplines: A Fresh Perspective at the Smithsonian

by Fredrick E. Peterson - 1980

The Smithsonian Institution's educational mandate has served as the basis for the Institution's growth and development from its inception. This continuing process has led to the development of a center of learning with educational concerns and accomplishments that are broader than those usually connoted by the term "museum." (Source: ERIC)

The Smithsonian Institution is seen by many Americans as the preeminent museum, or group of museums, in the country. It is viewed as the repository of our national past and as the conservator of diverse aspects of American enterprise and achievement. Above all, it is pictured as showplace par excellence for artifacts of all kinds.

While this view is not entirely incorrect, it is decidedly incomplete. The various buildings in the District of Columbia that are collectively known as "The Smithsonian" represent only a part of what might be termed the educational mission of the institution.

This educational mission had its beginnings some 150 years ago, thanks to the beneficence of an Englishman who never visited America while he lived. James Smithson was an illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland, and one of the youngest men ever elected to the Royal Society. At his death, in 1829, Smithson's final instructions to his bankers went into effect. The provisions of these instructions were such that Smithson's considerable inherited fortune would eventually be bequeathed to the United States of America "to found at Washington, under the name to [sic] the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."1 It became concrete in 1846, when the institution was formally created by an act of Congress, in accordance with Smithson's will.

Smithson's mandate is clearly educational in nature, and has served as a basis for the growth and development of the institution from the beginning. The scope and activities of the Smithsonian have changed and expanded as interpretations of this mandate and its implied educational mission have changed and as support for the institution and its goals has broadened. This continuing process has led to the development of a major center of learning with educational concerns and accomplishments that are considerably broader than those usually connoted by the term "museum." For example, the Smithsonian is one of the country's major research institutions. Indeed, many people are surprised to learn that the focus on research came long before the creation of the Smithsonian's museums and galleries and is still a vital concern and function of the institution, making valuable contributions to learning in many areas. Thus, over the past fifteen decades the Smithsonian has come to operate a variety of facilities for both the exploration and the dissemination of knowledge. It has also become directly involved with instruction (both formal and informal) in a number of ways.

Many of the more directly instructional activities are conducted under the auspices of the Office of Smithsonian Symposia and Seminars. Generally speaking, these can be divided into three broad categories: (1) educational "outreach" activities, (2) seminars and colloquia, and (3) international symposia. These varied endeavors are important because they help to carry out Smithson's mandate for the "diffusion of knowledge among men." They are also important because they have been purposefully multidisciplinary and have contributed to bridging the gap that separates the humanities and the sciences.

One type of "outreach" activity has centered on making the educational resources of the institution available to such diverse groups as rural high school students from North Carolina and candidates for advanced degrees in the fine arts from Hawaii. Another educational outreach venture has been the development of cooperative relationships with other institutions. Some of these have been with colleges and universities, of which Sinte Gleska Community College, on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, is an example. Representative of the other types of institutions with which ties are being developed is the future relationship with the Tyron Palace Commission in North Carolina, facilitating the study and appreciation of many aspects of architecture and gardening in Colonial America.

Seminars and colloquia have been devoted to a broad range of topics. Some of them have focused on important contemporary phenomena. A fine example of this is the series of seminars entitled "Voluntarism and the Public Interest in American Society." Others have been designed to capitalize upon a particularly rich setting. For example, "From Religious Toleration to Religious Freedom" took place in the outstanding historic houses of worship in Newport, Rhode Island, and included collaboration between the Smithsonian, the departments of religion of Columbia and Brown universities, and Newport's Redwood Library. Still others are commemorative in nature; commemorating events ranging from the nineteen hundredth anniversary of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, to the Lewis Henry Morgan Ancient History centennial, to the birth of great scientist-humanists. Illustrative of these activities are the two major themes focused upon in 1979 and early 1980: the International Year of the Child and the centennial of the birth of Albert Einstein. Both of these gave rise to publications, addresses and lectures, film presentations, concerts, special exhibits, and other events. They were also the focus of special colloquia. "Play and Inventiveness" was centered not only on children but also on those childlike qualities that are at the heart of much human learning and achievement. "The Joys of Research" focused on the thrill of discovery, which was so important to Einstein. Another side of his life was addressed by "The Muses Flee Hitler: Cultural Transfer and Adaptation in the United States, 1930-1945," which dealt with the migration of European artists and intellectuals to America during the Nazi era.

However, the international symposia are the most far-reaching and influential of the three categories of multidisciplinary educational activities discussed herein. Themes addressed by these symposia have included "Knowledge among Men" (1965), in commemoration of the two hundreth anniversary of the birth of James Smithson; "The Fitness of Man's Environment" (1967); "Man and Beast: Comparative Social Behavior" (1969); "Cultural Styles and Social Identities: Interpretations of Protest and Change" (1970); and "The Nature of Scientific Discovery" (1973), in commemoration of the quincentennial of the birth of Copernicus. The most recent theme has been "Kin and Communities: The Peopling of America." This was part of the Smithsonian's observance of the U.S. Bicentennial. It consisted of two interrelated symposia, one in 1976 and one in 1977, as well as associated activities, all intended to stimulate continued grass-roots interest in and exploration of our individual and collective familial, ethnic, and national heritages. (One of its many fine results was, in fact, support for the creation of the May 1978 issue of the Teachers College Record.) The seventh international symposium, scheduled for November 8-12, 1981, will be titled "How Humans Adapt: A Biocultural Odyssey." It will be an exploration of our human biocultural heritage, including examination of how it relates to contemporary problems and their possible solutions, and of how it might affect future endeavors.

Each international symposium is at once focused on an important topic and comprehensive in scope. In the various programs, discussions, workshops, panels, colloquia, and working sessions, widely different aspects of the general theme are addressed. For example, the topics discussed during the 1977 "Kin and Communities" symposium were not limited to such subject areas as anthropology, genealogy, history, and demography. Instead, a broad spectrum of subject matter specialties from the arts, the sciences, and the humanities was included. Some of the topics discussed even focused upon the role played by the Smithsonian as an educational institution. In this regard, discussion of the Smithsonian's interest in the benefits that can be realized through investigation of the interrelationship of the disciplines of knowledge was especially timely. The questions addressed included: What has "Kin and Communities" to do with education, both in school and out? In what ways and to what degree can a public institution of the nature and magnitude of the Smithsonian make more meaningful contributions to education and to "Kin and Communities" concerns? How can the Smithsonian's contribution to such general educational concerns as learning to ask and answer new questions, immersion in the interaction of ideas, and movement toward a more "liberalized" self be enhanced? How best can we explore the humanities and the sciences with a view toward development of curricula that will bridge the various academic disciplines? What can be done to bring academic departments together for mutual development of broad subject matter areas and for finding maps to cross-disciplinary wanderings? Do we perhaps need a new specialty, that of linking the humanities and the sciences? What approaches to interdisciplinary studies best lend themselves to packaging materials for learning? And what roles ought the Smithsonian to have in the exploration of the interplay of the disciplines, in building bridges between them, and in cross-disciplinary curriculum development?

As can be seen from this example, the symposia often include not only exploration and sharing of current knowledge and insights in the area of concern but also expansion of its applicability in examining other issues and problems. In this case, observation that the diverse subject areas treated in the symposia have great utility in clarifying and expanding on one another in a profitable cross-fertilization led to inquiry into the processes and benefits inherent in exploring the interplay of the disciplines. Concern with the relationships between the disciplines then itself became one of the subjects under consideration.

The insights gained through such inquiry point toward one of the goals arising from the "Kin and Communities" symposium: achievement of the promise inherent in meaningful linking of the arts, humanities, and sciences, with common roots and kinship in the community of man. To this end, the Office of Smithsonian Symposia and Seminars is currently seeking funds and other support for significant exploration of the relationships between the academic disciplines.

The move toward assuming a dynamic leadership role in helping to bridge the gap between the major disciplines of knowledge is a particularly valuable step because it will enable the Smithsonian to more fully capitalize on its educational mission and its potential, and because it can substantially benefit education in this country. Moreover, this is a leadership position to which the Smithsonian is uniquely suited. Highly regarded by educators at all levels, with solid achievements in all discipline areas, and able to serve all educational institutions without bias, the Smithsonian can accomplish many things in this realm that no other institution can. The Smithsonian has a unique ability to serve as a forum in which educational development can take place in a manner and at a level that is not available to most other educational organizations, to bring together diverse people, ideas, and objects for specific accomplishments, and to provide direction toward broad educational goals. Because of its organization and matchless resources and the great respect it commands both within and outside academia, the Smithsonian is peerless among American institutions in its capacity to effectuate "linkage." It is able to link objects and people, past and future, the local and the national. It can bring together word-oriented and object-oriented specialists, humanists and scientists, and even a wide variety of institutions. Probably its key strength in the task at hand, this facility with linkage is an instrumental quality that amplifies the Smithsonian's ability to integrate broad fields of knowledge in a meaningful and synergistic way. Also important is the fact that the Smithsonian is not as "locked in" to many of the circumstances that operate against cross-disciplinary explorations as are most institutions of higher education. In addition, the Smithsonian can serve as a sounding board for ideas and provide means for dissemination of the accomplishments it stimulates. Thus, the Smithsonian can be a fine catalyst both for exploration of the relationships between the academic disciplines and for the curriculum development such exploration implies. At least as important, however, especially at the present time, is the necessity of the Smithsonian's serving as a prime mover and agent of change. By capitalizing on an educational role that is at once individual and holistic, it can impart leadership toward profitable developments in education.

The intent of the proposed exploration of the interplay of the disciplines is to contribute materially to positive educational growth and development in this country, especially at the college and university level. The object is to supplement and enhance the advancements made by subject matter specialization, not to supplant them. Experience, in the international symposia and elsewhere, indicates that there are many potential benefits to students and professors and to the disciplines themselves that can be afforded by cross-disciplinary inquiry. The Smithsonian proposal shows promise of helping to reap some of these benefits. The hope is to encourage increased scientific literacy and understanding of the arts and letters, and to stimulate education in the sciences and humanities that probes the roots of knowledge and learning and enriches life and personal development. This exploration may help to alleviate the problems inherent in Thoreau's complaint that schools teach all of the branches of learning but none of the roots. Examination of the interrelationship of the disciplines can both produce new insights and promote mutual respect among the disciplines based on understanding and noting their commonalities as well as celebrating their differences. By a process of interaction, the disciplines of knowledge can be seen to complement, complete, test, and give harmony and sequence to one another. Perhaps this view can also help to revive interest in the benefits of intellectual development in the face of growing job-centeredness and boredom with formal education. Exploration of the sciences and the humanities with a view toward development of curricula that will bridge the gaps separating the academic disciplines will help to strengthen the synoptic, synergistic, and self-actualizing aspects of education. It lends itself to the ability to, in Matthew Arnold's words, "see life steady, and see it whole." It will be a valuable contribution to "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

1 See Melville Bell Grosvenor, "How James Smithson Came to Rest in the Institution He Never Knew," Smithsonian 6, no. 10 (January 1976): 30-37.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 82 Number 2, 1980, p. 311-316
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 977, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 7:14:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Fredrick Peterson
    University of North Dakota
    Fredrick E. Peterson is associate professor of education in the Center for Teaching and Learning and director of Extension and Professional Services of the University of North Dakota. He has research interests and publications in several areas of education and various of the social sciences.
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