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EH Gombrich and interdisciplinarity

I’ve been thinking about my grandfather EH Gombrich recently, and what he would have made of this talk of interdisciplinarity and what we are doing on the Arts and Sciences BASc.

I don’t think he would have liked the word much; perhaps he might even have gone along with the idea that the degree is ‘dumbing down’ in some way. But if that were the case it would be ironic because in some ways he was one of the great (and early) interdisciplinarians of the 20th century.

In fact, however, I reckon I could have convinced him pretty quickly that what we are doing on this degree has tremendous intellectual value; and as a great scholar, it was intellectual and academic value and seriousness that he was most concerned to retain in university studies.

In his own work he combined, at least, Art History, History and Psychology. You could also add, probably, Philosophy, Classics and a couple of other things.

I was struck a couple of years ago when a Cambridge academic said to me that he thought my grandfather was a truly great psychologist. As far as I know, Atta (as we called him), had very little formal academic training in Psychology. He had a few fairly eminent psychologist friends (!), Richard Gregory, Ernst Kris – to name only two – but I don’t think he even took any university exams in Psychology.

So I think he would have loved the possibility, as an undergraduate on Arts and Sciences BASc, to take a major in Art History and a minor in Psychology. He would have appreciated the opportunity to study Quantitative Methods to support his studies in Psychology and he would have enjoyed the Value Judgements: Qualitative Thinking course, to give him a wider view of the Humanities than studying Art History alone could allow.

I imagine I am winning him round to the idea. And once he is enthused about this particular combination, I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to interest him in the myriad of other fascinating combinations students can pursue on this degree, each with their own valid reasons for being combined: Computer Science and Literature; Health and Gender Studies; Economics and Psychology; History and Anthropology, Chemistry and Archaeology, Engineering and Design etc.

It is important to me what Atta would have thought. Although for much of my life growing up I was not engaged in academic things, he admired the fact that I was able to do Maths and Physics at university and I think he would have liked me to pursue a PhD in Physics. Even though that was not to be and we did not talk in detail about the Maths and Physics I studied, we always enjoyed intellectual discussions on any point of common interest, and of course I wish he were around now to discuss this fascinating UCL project.

But I was lucky to know him as long as I did. He only died when I was 35 and we spent a lot of time together throughout his life. If he were alive today I think he would appreciate the intellectual and academic value in what we are doing on the BASc. This gives me confidence to push ahead, continue to work through the details to try to give the students a really wonderful degree in which they can explore, learn and pursue their intellectual and academic interests.

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