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Groucho Marx and interdisciplinary education

‘I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member’, so said Groucho – as Woody Allen tells us in Annie Hall, if you can’t get to the original quote.

Since I blogged on interdisciplinarity and individuation last week I’ve been thinking about the logical consequences of a move in education which allows people to individuate their learning to such a degree that each personal combination is unique. There is a possibility here that those of us educated in this way will feel we do not want to be a member of any particular club; we will feel – often no doubt correctly – that we have a unique combination of knowledge and skills that gives us original insight.

I think this can work: there are a lot of positives, but we will also have to handle some negatives. Those who resist classification can add much to communities, both in terms of original insights they can offer and in terms of personalities, but they will also have to be team players and be socialised: using your individuated knowledge to offer new scholarly insights, help the team or contribute to society is good, but isolating yourself in a ‘nobody understands me’ kind of a mode is not.

Even in the bewildering and increasingly fragmented world of knowledge there are still individuated interdisciplinary scholars who manage to pull things together across great continents of thought and for the benefit of all. Peter Burke lists a few in his A Social History of Knowledge:  Michael Polanyi, Michel Foucault, Jared Diamond. And there are many others who use their interdisciplinary backgrounds to bridge worlds of scholarship, media, business, and so on: Steven Johnson, John Michael Greer etc.

This requires maturity. You need to be OK about being in the club of people who do not want to be in any club that would have them as a member. This could be a pretty cool club to belong to. Even Bertrand Russell (another great interdisciplinarian?) might be OK with that!

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