The division of universities into departments based on subject areas reflects how university faculty have studied the world over the centuries, not necessarily the way the world actually is. Because of the university, the ancient, unified approach to learning about the world has shattered into innumerable fragments of specialization. From the handful of artes in the early centuries of the university, the leading institutions today have hundreds of degree programs, thousands of faculty and staff, and tens of thousands of students.
As with any bureaucracy, universities grow by meiosis. Faculty within a department tend to become more specialized. At a certain point, the people within a department who share a specialty want more autonomy and lobby to create their own department, with a budget and power to hire. When departments divide in half, each half adds staff and then perhaps splits apart again. Within the university, what used to be in the domain of literature is now carried on in English, foreign language, classics, communications, and linguistics departments.
In the last generation, many English departments have split up into one department that studies literary interpretation (still called English) and one that focuses on the teaching of writing (usually called composition and rhetoric). Further specializations have already started to form within both departments. In English departments, some faculty focus on the literary history of primary texts while others focus on theoretical approaches, such as deconstruction or queer theory. In composition and rhetoric departments, some faculty focus on the teaching of writing, such as business or creative writing, while others focus on the rhetorical analysis of arguments found in other fields of study. These are the kinds of fault lines that widen over time and cause departments to split apart.
Specialized knowledge and the proliferation of university departments accelerated during the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization brought division of labor, in which complex work that may have been done by one craftsman would be broken down into narrower tasks, each done by a worker who excelled in it. Universities responded to the needs of industry by breaking disciplines into specialties that could prepare students for practical occupations—“natural philosophy” became geology, chemistry, biology, and so on. Universities added vocationally focused programs, such as business and education.
The Romantics gave us a more integrated vision of the university in reaction to this atomization. They conceived of the university as a banquet of knowledge, and they encouraged students to sample a wide range of disciplines so that they could become well rounded citizens of the world, not just narrow specialists. Students needed to learn languages, not just professions. They needed culture and history as well as science and logic. This vision dominated undergraduate education through most of the twentieth century in the form of general education. Students would spend up to two years of a four-year program taking required courses across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities to broaden their knowledge before plunging into courses in their major. General education has weakened since the 1960s because many freshmen and sophomores need remedial help with writing and math, which occupies time they would otherwise have for richer, multidisciplinary studies. In addition, the high cost of a college education and the demand for higher skills in the workplace have shifted the emphasis to vocational studies.
The multiplication of specialties has filled up nearly all the conceptual universe that used to be the domain of literature. Students coming into a college or university accept as a given the department structure and the specializations it supports. Students assume this is how people are supposed to learn about the world. By the time they declare a major and graduate, they have absorbed the professional habits of thinking of one specialty or other. You can get a doctorate in literature without knowing anything about astronomy. You can go all the way through the curriculum to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry without knowing anything about religion.
By contrast, most ancient poets knew about the stars and planets because the heavens constituted one of the languages by which destiny revealed itself to people on earth. Ancient chemists did not handle material substances without paying attention to the spirits that animated them. The scientific mind looks down at the way astrologers and alchemists conflate material things with subjective feelings. However, solving knotty problems such as the purpose and limits of genetic engineering requires thinking across the accepted boundaries of knowledge. Human values and imagination matter just as much as empirical facts.