Is interdisciplinary higher education the next big thing?

By Martin Davies (University of Melbourne) & Marcia Devlin (Deakin University)

Associate Professor Martin Davies

Associate Professor Martin Davies

Why is interdisciplinary higher education such a hot topic these days? A Google search will find any number of new books, conferences and research papers.  Some of our best universities explicitly refer to interdisciplinary studies, and require students to engage in “different ways of knowing” from their “home” disciplines. They also refer to ‘the value of interdisciplinary connections’, encourage the delivery of ‘breadth subjects that are interdisciplinary in character’ and cite approvingly of any opportunities for students and staff to ‘experience interdisciplinary teaching and research collaborations across the university’. Universities such as Murdoch have even adopted interdisciplinary higher education almost as a mantra.

So what’s behind it all?  Why the sudden surge of interest?

In an increasingly interconnected, globalised world with common issues and challenges, expertise from a range of disciplinary and professional perspectives has become critical to the management of emerging global concerns.  Some of the issues that require interdisciplinary study include global warming, terrorism, water allocation at a time of resource shortage, the AIDS crisis, and the prudent management of financial markets.  Old disciplinary approaches to these new problems are no longer sufficient.  Academics from different fields need to talk to each other if the problems are to be resolved.  The problems of the world today need more than a few discipline experts operating independently.  Enter interdisciplinarity.

The traditional view of the nature of academic disciplines as discrete and autonomous began with the development of universities in Europe.  The earliest universities began with only four disciplines: Medicine, Philosophy, Law and Theology.  The Department of Physics at Oxford still retains the name “Department of Natural Philosophy” in recognition of this heritage.  The “sciences” as they are known today did not exist, but increasing specialisation has resulted in more disciplines being added, and by the 1950s one report noted around 1,100 scientific disciplines alone.

Generally, we view an academic discipline as one that has a community of scholars, a tradition or history of inquiry, rules on data collection and interpretation or an existing requirements as to what constitutes new knowledge in the field.

However, each of these criteria can be questioned.  There are practices that do not have any of these features, and yet which have the characteristics of a proto- “discipline” – for example pre-Aristotelian physics – or practices which have these features but which do not seem like “disciplines” in their own right, such as Business Succession Planning and Genealogy. Should even traditional academic disciplines—for example, Accounting—continue to be described as such?  Is interdisciplinarity the norm, and “disciplines” deviations from it?

Disciplines grow and change.  The neat idea that there are “hard” disciplines (physics, chemistry) and “soft disciplines” (sociology, psychology) does not work.  This dichotomy does not account for the growth and development of disciplines. Before World War Two, the discipline of Physics was characterised by the quest for immutable and unchanging laws of nature yet after the war it became more focussed on industrial applications.  Another example could be the nature of Economics and Psychology; some parts are empirical or “hard” in nature and others are not.  While in the 1960s it was considered important that Psychology was a “hard”, empirical discipline thanks to B.F. Skinner’s work, however recently it has been thought to be more accommodating of alternative positions.  Disciplines clearly have porous boundaries, and university study needs to be reflective of that.

New disciplines are always emerging, gaining their independence from their original disciplinary homes once a defined and unique methodology has evolved. Cognitive Science, once the province of philosophers and part of the discipline of Philosophy (and, in particular, the field of the philosophy of mind), has taken on a life of its own and is now considered to be on its way to becoming a discipline, if it is not already.  International conferences are held in the new “discipline”, there are Centres of Cognitive Science in universities around the world and there are specialised peer-reviewed journals dedicated to the area.  It’s clear disciplines don’t stay put in their neat little boxes.

On top of all this, interdisciplinary terms are used (often inconsistently) among people in higher education on a regular basis. Words like “multidisciplinary”, “cross-disciplinary”, “pluridisciplinarity”, “transdisciplinarity”, and “interdisciplinary” occur in official university policy documents.  Even use of the word “interdisciplinary” itself often engenders quite different meanings.  Inconsistent use of words often probes an underlying issue that needs investigation.

If nothing else, we require our students to engage in different ways of knowing from their primary disciplines.  The need for this sort of engagement is critical, as old disciplinary approaches to new world problems are no longer sufficient.  The time for interdisciplinary higher education is now

Associate Professor Martin Davies is the Acting Director of the Teaching & Learning Unit at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Business and Economics.  He is the co-editor of a new book “Interdisciplinary Higher Education: Perspectives and Practicalities” along with Professor Marcia Devlin (Deakin University) and Professor Malcolm Tight (Lancaster University).

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