Two cautionary tales

Two cautionary tales

I’ve been bigging up interdisciplinarity and generalism as something we must look to provide in UK HE alongside more traditional subject/discipline-based degrees. The most viewed blogs that are closely related to these topics are here, here and here.

However, in the interest of balance, there are two pieces of cautionary advice I wish to offer alongside championing these approaches in HE.

1. You can’t have everything

Although we may wish to increase breadth, there is simply no way anyone could cover the most elementary courses in, say, 30 subjects at university. Even if this were theoretically possible on the timetable, it is hard to see what taking only introductory courses in such a range of subjects could achieve. I suppose, speculating only, such an approach could be a research project in itself, part of a wider attempt to understand the nature of learning beginner’s material in a wide range of subjects, but this sound more like a masters or PhD project in education, if anything. It is difficult to see what an undergraduate would get from doing this.

So although I maintain that the impulse to generalism is to be encouraged, even lauded, this impulse, like many impulses, must be guided and in some cases restrained so that the student is able to deepen their knowledge across as broad a range as possible. This guidance is greatly helped if the student already has in mind interesting multidisciplinary combinations (e.g. combining politics, economics and computer programming, or engineering, physics and design etc), but it is also possible to fashion undergraduate degrees with little connection between some of the disciplines, provided they are well-chosen and not too much is attempted.

2. The isolated genius

I blogged on something related to this a while ago, when I spoke of individuation, but it is worth repeating. Knowledge grows almost exclusively out of communities of people engaged in closely related research. Even fairly solitary geniuses like Einstein were connected, via the literature of the day, to the thoughts, work and experiments of other thinkers with very similar interests. But truly brilliant interdisciplinarians, who manage to forge combinations of disciplines where hitherto there had been very little connection (Georgescu-Roegen, the Econophysicist is on my mind at the moment), run a considerable risk of finding no audience for their work and no way to be heard. True, they can soldier on regardless, and – these days – can self-publish via the internet and try their best to build a community which is interested in their work and with whom they can go forward. But it can be a lonely business, and there may be no obvious career path. Such original thinkers may then need to work for money in areas not connected with their primary interests while they cement the foundations for their newly created interdiscipline by the 21st century version of candle light.

It is worth bearing these two things in mind as students have more and more opportunities to shape their own knowledge and form their own interdisciplinary and personal frameworks.

Photo under CC license from rw_Norris 2000’s photo stream

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