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Interdisciplinarity and Intellectual Excitement

I’ve been blogging on the connection between studying at university and work recently. I think this is important because the overwhelming majority of our students will not work in universities; there is no obvious reason, therefore, why studying a single university discipline is the best thing for most students to do in order to prepare themselves for the majority of white-collar jobs. I am also positive about the relationship between traditional university work and values and the increasing number of service and creative jobs in our knowledge economies. The either instrumental or inherent value of education seems to me an outdated polarisation. A broader, more liberal and more interdisciplinary education can serve many students best in helping them prepare for the large majority of current jobs.

But that is not all there is to interdisciplinarity. In many ways, even if this sort of education will line you up for the best jobs, that is not the most exciting thing it can do for you. No, the most exciting thing is that it allows you to create your own intellectual universe, to speak with your own intellectual voice.

This may seem a little far-fetched for an undergraduate, but it isn’t. In this great age of learning, a motivated undergraduate can be learning all the time, toggling between multiple disciplines and exploring many of the interstices between subjects as well as diving down to the foundations of certain disciplines. In fact, if you had never heard of the idea of a ‘subject’ or ‘discipline’ and started out your learning on the web – would you even believe such things existed? Wouldn’t you think it was rather odd that one department of a university was called ‘History’, another ‘Sociology’, another ‘Economics’? And wouldn’t you find it strange that these departments hardly ever spoke to one another or let their students study courses together? Would you divide the world of science into Biology, Chemistry and Physics if you started with an interest in Nanotechnology?

To take some examples of finding your own voice, if you wanted to study the mental health of children as viewed in various cultures, what disciplines would you need? Psychology? Anthropology? Geography? Neurology? Sociology? None of those disciplines alone will give you a proper perspective on this interesting interdisciplinary specialisation, but taken together you can, even at a fairly young age, start to find your voice in this area.

Or what about an interest in the financing and construction of large-scale engineering projects in the developing world? There are several ways to approach this but certainly some Engineering, some Economics, some Geography and some Politics might all be useful in allowing you a deeper insight into this subject.

Nobody says this is easy. But nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Many students will not achieve this kind of voice while still an undergraduate – and that doesn’t matter in the slightest as many students may be happy to explore further as postgraduates or to use what they have learnt in order to go out into the world to work in some of the areas described above, without being overly concerned about intellectual voice. But some students can achieve such an intellectual voice and we should support them in doing so. It has been documented by Koeslter, Berlin Johnson, Boden and many others that the most exciting  intellectual advances are interdisciplinary or non-disciplinary in nature. What is different now is that younger people can put together their own exciting, coherent intellectual vision of the world, if they are motivated to do so, and this vision may cross established disciplinary boundaries.

Photo: Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike License

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