Old Post: Interdisciplinarity and its Benefits

An Old Post today because I’m really tired from having a few awesome days with my friend in Oxford. And also because I’m now convinced that Oxford’s college system is quite suited for promoting interdisciplinary discussions – if only because I happened to end up discussing the viciousness of animals (‘all animals are vicious bastards – especially the cuddly ones’) with a pathologist. And also because I, with an undergraduate degree in law and economics, and a postgraduate degree in criminology, managed to, last week, pass the ‘transfer’ for my PhD in English Language – I’m thoroughly convinced an interdisciplinary education makes changing fields so.much.easier.

Whenever UC Roosevelt explained the concept of ‘liberal arts and sciences’ to (prospective) students and their parents, some people often drew on the medieval and Renaissance concepts of the ‘trivium’ – grammar, logic and rhetoric – and the ‘quadrivium’ – arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy – which together are supposed to make up a full education.
Naturally, today’s demands have changed education – especially music and astronomy are often left out of general education, although some schools may offer music as an elective art class and some schools may touch briefly on astronomy in science classes. Nevertheless, the point remains that a full education should entail the mastery of several subjects rather than just one.

This concept is not wholly foreign to Universities – just consider the recent founding of a number of liberal arts colleges in the Netherlands (UC Utrecht – 1998, UC Maastrict – 2002, Roosevelt Academy/UC Roosevelt – 2004, Amsterdam UC – 2008, Leiden UC The Hague – 2010, Erasmus UC – 2013).

For a very long time, people were considered to have been educated up to a sufficient level if they could read, write and pay their bills.
People were considered well-educated if they had a profound theoretical knowledge of a certain topic. But in today’s world, where all information known to humankind is a screen-swipe at a rainy bus stop away, even if this is generally used to look at videos of Star Wars-sourced lyrics set against a capella renditions of John Williams soundtracks (it never gets old), this just isn’t enough. People need to go back to the idea that a good education contains a bit of everything – the current day-reading&writing&maths.

UCR puts it that ‘[t]he Liberal Arts and Sciences educational concept is based upon the idea that today’s most complex problems can no longer be solved with a mono-disciplinary approach.’ (http://www.ucr.nl/about-ucr/Pages/Liberal-Arts-and-Sciences.aspx), EUC says that ‘[t]o be successful in today’s evolving world, one must be literate in a host of arenas.’ (http://www.eur.nl/euc/liberal_arts_sciences/introduction_las/), while AUC states it best when it writes that  ‘[t]oday’s society is in a constant state of flux, and our future leaders need to be flexible, creative thinkers, able to cope with the complexity of the issues facing the world. A liberal arts and sciences education is an excellent foundation in this context. In addition to factual knowledge, a liberal arts and sciences education prepares you to become a multilingual, informed and engaged global citizen, with well-developed intercultural competences, able to read intelligently, think critically and write effectively on the processes shaping our world.’ (http://www.auc.nl/about-auc/about-liberal-arts–sciences/liberal-arts-sciences.html).

I do, however, recognise that changing education for the best takes a very long time (changing it for the worse, however, is much easier – but building always is more effort than destroying); it’s already been 15 years since UCU was founded and only now the UC-movement has gained enough momentum to be recognised by people outside HE. So to help this process, let me list some advantages we interdisciplinarians have over those monodisciplinarians.

1. If we are in Arts, we can still do maths / if we are in Science, we can still deconstruct pop culture.
There are, of course, many other things we are also capable of, depending on the modules we took, but the fact that we will have had to pass modules in fields only tenuously related to our major (if that) means that we have a good theoretical knowledge of our major (that’s what it’s our major for) but also that we haven’t been allowed to give up on basic capabilities such as doing maths and analysing poetry. I’m not saying a Literature major should be able to do calculus at the level of an astrophysicist, or the astrophysicist to understand all the subtleties of ‘he was withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage’ (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ch. 20), but I am nevertheless saying that interdisciplinarians can do more than just their major. We are inherently mixed methods rather than either quant or qual – we grasp SPSS as much as we grasp doing an ethnography.

2. We learn / study more flexibly.
This is related to the point above and naturally differs per person, but the fact that we have been forced to study different things means that we will have had to develop ways to deal with different topics, meaning that we are likely to be familiar with a whole range of study methods. This, in turn, will quite likely have prepared us to deal with having to learn new things later in life. We may have majored in one field, but our study skills make it easy for us to pick up knowledge in other fields too.

3. We can keep up an intelligent conversation.
This is not to say that monodisciplinarians can’t – of course they can – but we are perhaps more comfortable than they are in doing so. We in Arts can still discuss time travel with a Science-friend, who is equally capable of keeping up a conversation on misogynist ideology in mainstream media (without saying profoundly stupid things)

4. We look at things in different ways.
A philosopher with modules in economics, a mathematician with modules in sociology – it works. Instead of continuing on the well-worn paths, we are able to apply concepts from other fields and translate our own ideas into other fields, thus finding ways of thinking outside the box, of approaching matters from different angles. This may not necessarily make us more creative, but it does make us less derivative.
Crossing fields is incredibly daunting, but being able to do so will keep not just Academia fresh and flexible, but industry too.

5. We don’t have to give up interests.
While the first four make us good employees/entrepreneurs, this one is perhaps more to our own benefit. Not having to give up your other interests can change your life. I shall take myself as case in point: when I was 17, I really wanted to study Law. I was going to study Law, too, at Tilburg University. Had I gone on to study law, I would now be starting my internship at a law firm, probably having specialised in Family Law and intending to be a divorce lawyer, although I find Criminal Law much more interesting – Family Law is the safer option. But instead I got to combine Law with Economics and a bit of Politics, as well as Media Studies, Rhetoric and Stylistics, and I got to attend a book club and a literature and linguistics discussion group – so now I’m doing a PhD in English looking at UK news media (re)presentation of corporate fraud instead of learning how to tell people what’s in it for them if they decide to get divorced. I dare say I am much happier than I would have been in the alternative scenario, if only because I get to do everything I find interesting, instead of just some little bit of it.

So, to summarise; we interdisciplinarians are flexible, hard-working, fast-learning, creative, intelligent and, perhaps most importantly, happy people. There may be a fallacy here – did our interdisciplinary education make us so, or did we so start out so and chose an interdisciplinary education because of it? It is probably a bit of both, but fact remains that an interdisciplinary education is something to be in support of.

Of course, interdisciplinarity does have its downsides. It is incredibly hard work – UCR used to advise that the average week in the semester entailed 56 hours of course-related work. I sometimes joke that my love for my alma mater is the result of Stockholm Syndrome. In order for it to be effective, class sizes should be limited – this could go both ways, as it would improve employment for academics but may be quite expensive if ill-organised. And it is difficult to explain what exactly you’re doing – which is fine if you’re just talking to your gran at a birthday, but is perhaps a little more difficult when you’re looking for a job and have to say “yeah, uhm, look, I did major in Science but since I took modules on Physics and Engineering and IT and Mathematics it’s basically equivalent to having studied Computer Science”, or even worse, when you’re a politician trying to make a point that Higher Education funding should not be further cut (which would get you my vote) and have to say “yes, look, I know it is not incredibly clear what our students are being trained for but I can assure you that they will be incredibly capable at whatever they end up doing” – saying you’re training n lawyers, p surgeons and q historians (or, even more political, that you’re training x STEM-field students, who are obviously a worthwhile investment because of the clear-cut monetary value of STEM-research – I have briefly covered this before, I promise to expand on it some other time) is much more likely to earn you the approval of other politicians. Perhaps monodisciplinarians with only one interest are happier being monodisciplinary.

And sometimes being interdisciplinary makes us a bit arrogant because it makes us think we know it all.

But it’s worth it. Because ask yourself – would you rather have a GP who is really good at her job, or a GP who is really good at her job who also understands what she is doing when she votes during elections? A computer engineer who is really good at fixing your computer but also understands when the media are trying to manipulate him? An investment banker who is brilliant at handling your portfolio or one who is brilliant at handling your portfolio and also understands ethics?

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Author: Ilse A Ras

There are times when I am doing research on crime news and language; sometimes I'm obsessed, sometimes I'm bored, and sometimes my tea is getting cold.

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