Outside Spooner Hall, the oldest continuously used building on the Kansas University campus, the following words are engraved: “Whoso findeth wisdom findeth life.”
The Commons, a wonderfully lit, spacious area that takes up most of the main floor, is designated to exemplify this slogan.
“I don’t really feel like most people classify interesting information based on the academic discipline that generated it,” said Jordan Yochim, acting director of The Commons. “Most people are interested in knowledge that’s cool and insightful and helps them think about their lives and improve their world, wherever it comes from.”
The Commons was opened two years ago to serve as a space on campus devoted to interdisciplinary studies that focus on the three main continents of the academic world: science, arts and humanities. It has hosted a variety of events, including art and photography exhibits, lectures, musical events, theatrical performances, honors classes and academic workshops.
“The idea is that as a society and an institution that generate new knowledge, the areas that are most pressing for society’s needs and the areas perhaps for discovering the most knowledge are those that don’t fit neatly into academic disciplines,” said Yochim, who also serves as the associate director for administration at the KU Museum of Natural History.
The audiences at Commons events and support for the interdisciplinary focus of its programs has increased since it was opened two years ago, said Leonard Krishtalka, director of the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, which helps run The Commons. The crowds include students, faculty and members of the Lawrence community.
“More than a place or a venue, The Commons has become what we wanted it to become in our initial vision,” he said. “That is we wanted the idea of The Commons to pervade the thinking of the entire campus and community.”
While most events take place in one of the two large rooms in Spooner Hall, some events have been large enough to warrant more space. The most successful event in terms of numbers was a lecture by revolutionary Canadian designer Bruce Mau, which attracted a capacity crowd in Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union.
The lecture was part of an honors class offered at The Commons during the spring semester. The class is dedicated to specific topics that focus on the intersection between natural and cultural systems. The topic during the first year was climate change, in the second year it was creativity, and in spring 2010 it will be jazz.
“It’s easy within individual departments to become very focused on what we do within our department,” said Sarah Crawford-Parker, associate director of the KU Honors Program. “The great thing about The Commons is that it gets us of outside of our disciplinary point of focus to think about important questions in new ways.”
The Commons is supported financially by the KU Provost’s Office, private donations and some additional funding from the Hall Center for the Humanities, the Spencer Museum of Art and the Biodiversity Institute, which oversee the events and planning at The Commons.
Despite the economic recession, Yochim said he has seen no dip in funding to The Commons and expects it to grow over time.
Support for The Commons has grown enough for Yochim to hire a half-time assistant to help plan events and programs; it will be the first paid position at The Commons. The additional help also will allow the organization to more widely advertise events and programs around the campus and community. Yochim, though, hopes The Commons also will be able to gain support by word of mouth.
“Our hope is that the idea of The Commons is taken up not just because we are waving the flag, but because other people recognize the benefit and the fun and joy of discovery that can come from that,” Yochim said.
With more exposure, Krishtalka said he hopes The Commons will generate interdisciplinary research on important issues that many researchers tend to avoid.
“I see it tackling the subjects that otherwise some would call controversial and some would call uncomfortable to deal with,” he said. “But unless we deal with them, we won’t achieve a better understanding of the human condition and the environments in which those conditions are formed.”