Sunday, February 7, 2016

On Well-Fortified Silos

To be accused of "silo-thinking" among academicians is to be accused of closed mindedness. The thought behind the accusation goes this way: the various disciplines are like towering pillars of knowledge that have been erected alongside each other. Each tower is isolated from the next. There is no communication, community, or intercourse between the inhabitants of each tower. This fosters an unhealthy insularity that fragments the whole of human knowledge and distorts our perceptions. It is said that we must "get beyond" these silos in the name of a more healthy "interdisciplinarity" that will restore the wholeness of the world.

Who could object to this worthy goal? It's completely unobjectionable, and in fact desirable. Except some of the more extremist holders of this view go so far as to say we should tear down the silos! Raze them to the ground! We must do this, we are told, because disciplinary "expertise" makes us myopic, if it doesn't blind us altogether. Down with the towers of established knowledge, and off with the heads of anyone who defends them!

But the extremists can't really mean this. To destroy the silos altogether would be to say they've not helped us to see farther into the domains they tower over, and to drill down more deeply into their respective areas of knowledge. Are the silo-destroyers really saying we should forgo the accumulated insights generated by each? After all, whether we call it interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity or what have you, note that disciplinarity remains intact. Isn't the call for interdisciplinarity really a call for a great conversation among the various tower-dwellers in the name of a more cohesive community of knowledge? Isn't it a call for us to venture outside our towers to communicate with other knowledge-seekers as informed by our various disciplines? Wouldn't such a conversation have the potential to set off sparks that could better illuminate the shadows between the silos? But to destroy the silos altogether? Wouldn't that be to reduce all of human human knowledge to a dark and barren valley of Babel?

An extremist view hardly to be taken seriously--so enough. However, the more subtle, the more insidious way the accusation of "silo-thinking" is expressed takes the following form, and is predicated on the idea that not all silos are equal. 

Let us imagine some historians knocking on the door of the mathematics silo:

"Who is it?" ask the barricaded mathematicians.

"We're historians. We'd like to come in and do some interdisciplinary work."

"None of you are mathematicians and we have the integrity of our discipline to think of. No thank you! Run along now!"

Now imagine mathematicians knocking on the door of the history silo:

"Hello! Historians! It is us, the mathematicians! We have an idea for developing a course on the history of mathematics, and we'd like to teach it. What do you think?"

"Well, you know, knowing the history of your own discipline is one thing, but understanding what history itself is and how history is made . . ."

"What? Oh--you historians and your close minded silo-thinking! You unilateralist cabal!"

One thing I've noticed is that those protesting the loudest about "silo-thinking" do so from the tallest and most well-fortified silos. And those shouting are in essence telling those down below in the shorter silos that they really don't deserve to have a silo at all.

In sum, the accusation of "silo-thinking" is often deployed as a Trojan horse against the humanities.


  1. Love it. Could you say a little bit more about what you mean by "You know your dog is spoiled when you try to type with one hand so you can pet him with the other." What = most well-fortified?