Fairfield has embraced “Cities” as an area of academic focus

by Nels Pearson, Ph.D.

If there is a universal characteristic of human beings, it is that we generally prefer to live together rather than live alone. As far back as archeology permits, we have abundant evidence for the human tendency to live in increasingly complex groups — settlements that may start small, but soon grow into complex, sometimes sprawling, socially and economically complex things called “cities.” It might be argued that making cities is what we humans do. But how do cities work? What effect does the city have on the individual, and how have cities shaped our social and cultural realities?

To address some of these questions, over the next two academic years Fairfield has adopted “cities” as an area of focus for the academic years 2012 – 2014. Along with Gary Wood, the director of the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, I will be acting as co-facilitators of this campus-wide, interdisciplinary initiative to study, explore, and experience the significance of urban and metropolitan life in our global moment.

Over the course of these two years there will be hundreds of events — from seminars on the challenges of urban education, to theatrical and artistic programs highlighting a variety of city experiences, to courses on the mathematics and philosophy of cities — that raise questions about our urban environments and the ways we shape and are shaped by them.

Meanwhile, in the classroom, students from all disciplines will be thinking about the role of the city — from the perspective of economics, psychology, public health, philosophy, and so on. The idea for the biennial “area of focus” is to inspire conversations across disciplines, and to engage students and their professors — from math and physics, to business and economics, to literature and the arts — in an ongoing conversation on a topic that is relevant to one and all, and that requires multiple points of view.

After all, as a Jesuit liberal arts institution, Fairfield challenges us not just to study a variety of academic disciplines, but also to seek connections between these fields of study, and to solve problems by drawing on a variety of intellectual methods.

In the 1850s, John Henry Cardinal Newman described the ideal University as a place where “all branches of knowledge are . . . not isolated and independent of one another, but form together a whole system.” We often take Newman’s proposal to mean that each individual in the university is liberated to discover the interconnectedness of knowledge, but it can also be seen as a statement about the vitality of interdisciplinary collaboration and intellectual teamwork. Indeed, many of the world’s most pressing problems can only be understood through interconnecting fields of study.

The city is a perfect example of such a subject, for even though it is one of the most important phenomena in human history, no single academic discipline can tell us what it is.

As economists and students of business well know, the city is a testament to the human proclivity for commerce, our inclination to form markets, industries, and engines of wealth. For political scientists, sociologists, and philosophers, the city springs from the radical conundrums of the social contract. In the city, we as people are engaged in the ongoing tug of war over the requirements and privileges of citizenship, and how to establish, limit, and enforce political sovereignty.

Evolutionary biologists and ecologists have meanwhile noted that humans in cities behave in ways remarkably similar to organisms and animal species — in that they allow for the sharing of the burden of certain tasks, and increased efficiencies brought about by specializations (I don’t have to make shoes because you make shoes. You don’t have to make bread because I make bread). This is a compelling irony, for the towering skyscrapers that we see as evidence of our greatest progress thus also reveal how deeply embedded we are in the laws of nature.

Just as cities exemplify our capacity to engineer civil societies, they also illustrate our capacity to exclude, exploit, and isolate.

That urban locations, while bringing large numbers of people in close contact, also alienate the individual from society and expose the massive economic imbalances between classes has long been one of the central themes in literary works about the city. As Albert Camus wrote in his Notebooks in 1940, “As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.”

For better and for worse, one thing is certain: As of this century, the human population has become predominantly urban. For the first time, over 50 percent of people on the planet live in cities, and trends indicate that this will rise to 75 percent within the next half century. The great majority of college graduates will follow this trend, earning their first job in a city.

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