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Necessary and Sufficient Conditions in Higher Education

I think that most important decisions, realisations and insights in life are essentially irrational, or a least a-rational, processes.  This may sound odd, but I mean that who you fall in love with, which music you like, what politics you espouse, which career you choose – the things that shape your life – are essentially decided by emotional responses, rather than rational calls. Calling them ’emotional decisions’ might be one way to go, but this sounds strange as some of them are barely decisions. One could almost say that if you decide to fall in love with someone then you haven’t really understood what love is! So I prefer to call them ‘responses’ even though the result of such a response may often appear like a decision. Even making a ‘career decision’ is ultimately, I think, an emotional process. You may think you have chosen this decision (rationally) because it gives you more money; but why do you want more money? The answer to that question can, ultimately, only be some kind of emotional response: Because I like to be rich (why?); Because it makes me feel powerful (why?); and so on.

I also think that many of the most important historic advances – the abolition of slavery, the establishing of democracies, the diminishing of cruelty to children – are also a-rational processes writ large. Of course one can find rationales for them – indeed one usually has to find rationales in order for them to become intelligible to other people, for the ideas to catch on, for the necessary institutions to be built to bring them to fruition, and so on – but the initial impulses are emotional. See, for example, Roman Krznaric on the role of empathy (a fairly ‘modern’ emotion) in the abolition of slavery.

And yet this is not an excuse to be rubbish with logic or to deny that clear arguments are important. Although, unfortunately, logic will never convince a violent fundamentalist not to be violent and is even very unlikely to convince an atheist to be a Christian (or vice versa), there are many instances in life – in law, in science, in politics and elsewhere – where a point of logic can clarify and clear away a lot of rubbish, if one is able to step back from an emotional response and listen with an open mind to what is being said.

This ‘double view’ of mine is almost certainly why, although not naturally gifted in it, I spent 5-6 years of my life trying to understand as much maths, physics and mathematical logic as I could. Because although I believe it will always ultimately be our emotions that drive us, we can temper those emotions and grow in understanding by being as clear and as logical as possible. We must tend carefully to our emotional responses but try, also, to look at them logically.

In a wider sphere, although other cultures and traditions may adopt practices which seem strange or unpleasant to us, we can temper the worst excesses of our own culture by being as logical as possible about our practices, our values, our laws and so on. Conversely – and just to repeat – we must accept that logic will not solve all problems, that, so long as we are human beings, there will be residual but strong emotional responses which are not susceptible to logic.

In the field in which I now work – education – there is a great deal of emotion and perhaps not always enough logic. At the level of school education this has recently become something of a furore. The ‘progressives’ fight the ‘traditionalists’, the latter sometimes accusing the former of being ‘romantic’ (in a bad sense) and the former accusing the latter of being ‘scientistic’ (also in a bad sense). Although this may be somewhat inevitable – what we think is worth learning will always contain a large dose of emotion – it is sometimes unfortunate to witness the tone of the debate.

To date, higher education seems, more or less, to have stayed out of the debate in this particular form. But related debates are gathering momentum.

For example, there is lively debate about the value of certain types of higher education and what we in the West should do now that we are heading towards a situation in which a majority of the population take university degrees. Some decry the uselessness of US-style liberal arts education; others argue that the old disciplinary silos are inappropriate for such large numbers and are, in any case, well and truly out of date and need smashing down, or at least major refurbishment and a knocking-through of walls.

With my colleagues at UCL, we have been thinking about these issues for the last 5 years and we believe there is a substantial place in the modern world for a demanding, rigorous, interdisciplinary higher education.

But maybe this is just our emotional response. We are a group of people with wide interests who tend naturally to want to stray outside conventional boundaries in academia. The team includes a political sociologist with a background in modern languages, a chemist who defines sometimes as a physicist and spends a considerable amount of time doing engineering, a philosopher of science with a background in cultural studies, a neuroscientist who is part psychologist and biologist but passionate about poetry and music, a biochemical engineer who is creating with architects. And so on. Perhaps we’re just in love with this ‘wider’ view of knowledge and enjoy intellectual play wherever we find it. Where is the logic that broad, interdisciplinary of study can be of benefit to students?

In order to be as dry and logical as possible about this, I present the following schema.


There are 4 reasons why an individual, in the absence of being forced or pressurised, would go to university:

1. In order to get a better job outside of a university afterwards

2. In order to get a job in the university sector afterwards

3. In order to study what they are interested in/love (which may be independent of either 1. or 2.)

4. To have a good time (independent of any academic study).

Number 4 is of a slightly different ilk, so let’s not consider it here. For the other 3 assumptions, let us look at whether a monodisciplinary degree is necessary or sufficient to achieve these goals; then let’s look at whether an interdisciplinary degree is necessary or sufficient to achieve the same goals.

In order to get a good job after university it is generally not necessary to study a monodisciplinary degree. Indeed, for a growing number of jobs in an economy like the UK’s, which is 83.4% services (ONS), increasingly it is not sufficient either. Of course, for many jobs it is not necessary to study an interdisciplinary degree either (the graduate jobs market is largely ‘discipline-independent’) but for many jobs now a good interdisciplinary degree will be sufficient because after such a programme you will have a range of knowledge and skills and be able to show the requisite variety for the job you are applying for.

Is it necessary to study a monodisciplinary degree to get a job in a university? (We should note that this question will only apply to less than 2% of all graduates, but we consider it anyway.) Well, for some disciplines this is clearly necessary. In medicine, you often need a disciplinary background to go on to research and teach in this area, and the same applies to some engineering careers, modern languages and others. And if you are good enough, your monodisciplinary degree should be sufficient. But in a growing number of interdisciplinary research areas monodisciplinary degrees may not be sufficient or at least may be sub-optimal. To work on Cities, Sustainability, HCI, Development, Digital Humanities etc. it may be that a good interdisciplinary degree is necessary and sufficient, but a monodisciplinary one is neither.

As for 3, well, if you want to study what you love, either a monodisciplinary or interdisciplinary degree can be necessary and sufficient, depending on what it is that you love!

Whether it is for emotional or logical reasons, there is much support for the idea that an interdisciplinary higher education might be best for a growing number of individuals.

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