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Interdisciplinarity and individuation

A tweet about this conference on ‘Promises’ has me thinking about interdisciplinarity in education: the promises it holds and the risks that come with those promises.

The beauty of what an interdisciplinary eduction offers is essentially one of individuation. As such it feels contemporary, relevant and desirable. It is part of a long line of political and social developments in democracy and individual freedoms. What we all would like, surely, is to learn what we want, how we want; and the right sort of interdisciplinary programme, supported by the right sort of teaching, assessment and educational philosophy is likely to foster this better than more traditional programmes.

Individuation (though I haven’t heard it called that explicitly) is a big part of what educators are currently excited about. The argument goes that the old ‘production line’ model of education fitted the world of the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, a world based on heavy industry, standardisation and conveyor belts. The metaphor sees it that schools existed to crank out students with a range of fixed properties in much the way that factories existed to turn out cars or ready meals with fixed properties. Because students are thus cranked out, they are little individuated. The educators see this model as finished. See, for example, this video from Sir Ken Robinson and RSAnimate. The view is that it is finished because technology is taking us to a place where all the routine stuff of industry is automated. The underlying assumption is that ‘value’ will come from different ways of synthesising and recasting knowledge, not from being part of standardised processes.

As Sir Ken highlights, one reason for changing the paradigm (oh, how I hate that word, but there is still no good substitute!) is economic. There are also other reasons and Sir Ken, like many others, moves on to them (in his case he looks at ‘cultural reasons’) because, as he puts it ‘no-one can [even] know what the economy will look like next week’. But the economic issues cannot be glossed over so easily – even in ignorance! I will return to this issue below.

Now, there are at least two counter-arguments to this view of the changing world of work and how our education should prepare us for this world. One is ‘Digital Taylorism’, defined and discussed in the work of Phil Brown. Phil argues that far from liberating us from drudgery, for the large majority of the workforce, digitalisation will simply mean being attached to software systems in call centres, performing fairly menial software engineering jobs in industry and so on; we will be in a new age of standardisation, one defined by the digital machines we work with, rather than the old heavy industry we used to work with.

The other argument has it that ideas about what web 2.0 is doing to education and the economy only really apply to the elite in the world economy. When billions are still starving or involved in turmoil and violent conflict, talk of ‘deregulating school and university curricula’ seems premature to say the least. There are perhaps billions who would be best served by learning basic agricultural techniques or classical engineering of a practical bent.

But let us leave those two arguments aside and agree, at least, that for young people in the West who are fortunate enough to get a decent education, the world of work is changing into something very different from the past 150 years. What then for interdisciplinary and individuation?

Well, I think it is possible and, as I say, desirable; but there are also deep challenges related to this vision of individuation in education.

The fundamental challenge is that of the individual vs the collective. Let me outline just two ways in which I can see this challenge playing out.

Firstly, how do we assess truly individuated education? If the (laudable) idea of interdisciplinarity is to allow people to follow their links, to be creative in their learning and putting together of knowledge, how do we assess when this has been done well? By definition, if someone’s learning is truly individuated, uniquely original, then who can assess whether what has been done is worthwhile or has been done well?

Secondly (and relatedly) how do we really assess the ‘value’ of such an interdisciplinary view? Society is by definition collective, it is about a collection of individuals, and social groups are notorious for demanding conformity, whether that conformity is in moral values, economic policy or academic disciplinarity! A society of uniquely individuated individuals, each with their own unique and original viewpoint, is not possible to structure. It is hard to see how a coherent economic picture can emerge from this either. Disappointment arising from individuated graduates unable to find a public or economic sector for their particular world view is likely to be high – though there has always been the cold reality check of the economics or chemistry graduate thrust into the world of finance, say, which they soon find does not fit their dreams of a working life and, indeed, bears no relation to what they studied at university.

The value of an interdisciplinary education, then, touches on deep questions both for the individual and for the history of knowledge. It is certainly true that many original thinkers are likely to emerge from such an education, but the value of their learning and their creative input can only be properly judged once their ideas have passed through the sieve of history. Only with time will we be able to say whether the striking new syntheses put together by the most intelligent students who learn in this way will have lasting cultural, scientific or economic value.

In the end, it seems to me, we will be unable to avoid some kind of elite emerging: those who structure their interdisciplinary learning best, both for themselves and for the society in which they function. The wider issues of structuring societies and economies so that social and economic justice prevail will always remain, no matter how individuated, relevant and contemporary education becomes.

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