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Two Cheers for the Disciplines

There’s a lot of talk these days—as there’s always been—about reforming higher education.  One of the more popular ideas getting a lot of play is that doing away with the disciplines will fix what’s wrong with the system.  The disciplines are maligned for being overly narrow, out of touch, and unable to solve the pressing issues of the day—all of which, it’s insisted, transcend individual disciplinary boundaries.  Better to junk them and focus on the problems directly.  It’s a seductive idea.  But implementing it would be a big mistake.

I’m no enemy of interdisciplinarity.  Indeed, I spent the happiest seven years of my teaching career in a program that was doubly interdisciplinary (both within and across courses).  And I have published multiple interdisciplinary works, including a couple of books.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Let’s start with a seemingly obvious point: you can’t have “interdisciplinary” teaching or research without first having “disciplines” to interrelate.  No disciplines; no interdisciplinarity.  I couldn’t have taught those interdisciplinary courses or done the research I did without relying on “the disciplines” (in my case, institutional political economy, philosophy, history, sociology, and psychology).

No discipline is a complete intellectual toolkit.  But a toolkit equipped with disciplinary tools is superior to one without them, just as a set of “Snap-On” brand tools is superior to a set of tools bought at the Dollar Store.  Want to solve global warming?  You’re far better off with cutting-edge climatology, ecology, engineering, and policy analysis than without them.

The most vehement critics of the disciplines paint them as prisons of the mind.  This is neither historically nor currently accurate.  The disciplines were originally fed by numerous currents, but among the most important was a desire to escape the bounds of the traditional university by establishing new lines of inquiry and new methods by which to follow them.

Nor is it true that modern disciplines are as monolithic or impermeable as their critics make them out to be.  Borrowing across disciplines—especially (but not only) in the humanities and social sciences—is commonplace.  (In my own discipline of political science, no one questions the legitimacy of historical, institutional, sociological, economic, or philosophical analysis.)   Meanwhile, the degree to which interdisciplinary study and teaching already goes on should not be underestimated.  Many college and university schools and departments are interdisciplinary by nature (e.g., public health).  In addition, most institutions have numerous cross-disciplinary departments, institutes, centers, and programs.

All of this is as it should be.  Universities and colleges should be places where both disciplinary and interdisciplinary work can not only co-exist—but interact.  That’s why I say “Two cheers for the disciplines.”