The Fading Hope of Interdisciplinary Studies

The word “universe” means “everything.” A university is thus a place where you should be able to learn everything. In pursuit of this ideal, students are required to take a science class or two, a few humanities classes, and a few social science classes in addition to their major and minor classes. At best, then, for most students a university education is slightly multidisciplinary, since none of what is learned in these classes is integrated.

There is one exception to this in the universities, and that is interdisciplinary studies. At least, interdisciplinary studies could be the exception, but no program I am familiar with, including the one I taught in for a semester at the University of Texas at Arlington (described as one of the largest in the United States), lives up to the potential of providing a truly universal education. These programs don’t even live up to their own descriptions as a way for students to understand how to integrate a variety of disciplines of their own choosing.

As practiced now, interdisciplinary studies basically amounts to “create your own major”—as described in a Nov. 17, 2010, article in the Wall Street Journal, “Can’t Pick a Major? Create One.” That should remain its center. Not every student wants to narrowly specialize in the disciplines as given, and some universities rightly allow students to cobble together their own majors. Other universities, however, have set out to do more—to develop interdisciplinary studies programs that help those students figure out how to bring everything together. But without some unifying theory interdisciplinary studies programs just end up institutionalizing this multidisciplinary cobbling-together.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The way to solve this problem—through a theory, or theories, of how the different disciplines are related to each other, combined with a method of integration—also creates the possibility of a new way of thinking about what a university education means.

At universities, knowledge has been divided into disciplines. To the extent that universities provide a multidisciplinary education, students learn something from most of the disciplines, but are not told how those disciplines are related to each other. Sure, the biology major has to take biochemistry and organic chemistry, thus learning how chemistry is related to biology, but what does the English major understand about how psychology, let alone biology, is related to literature?  (The biology majors don’t understand this, either.) The average college graduate takes a large number of classes whose relationships (and even value) have not been explained.

This points to two different but related ways interdisciplinary studies can and should be offered.

The first is as a way to create your own major. If you want to study literary Darwinism, you will need to take classes in evolutionary biology, psychology, and literature.

The second is as a way to help all students understand how the different fields of knowledge are related. This could happen through a simple requirement that everyone take a course in the method of integration and the theories that allow integration to occur—complexity, systems theory, network theory, information theory, emergence, evolution, and time (particularly J.T. Fraser’s theory of time, which involves many of these elements). That would at least demonstrate how the disciplines are related. These are unifying concepts that help students to see how the various elements of reality studied in our various disciplines are interrelated. Most of what we study—quantum systems, chemical systems, biological systems, neurological systems, ecosystems, economies, societies, cultures, etc.—are (increasingly) complex systems, so unifying concepts are both logical and necessary. Requiring a class that shows the interconnections would help many students begin to see that their required classes aren’t so pointless after all.

To major in interdisciplinary studies, students should know enough about each discipline to understand how they can be related to one another and should master such concepts as complexity and emergence, understand how the disciplines are interrelated, and be able to integrate knowledge from each of the chosen disciplines. That is no small task.

Unfortunately, interdisciplinary studies programs have yet to live up to this task.

But things were once worse for interdisciplinary studies programs than they are now. For the longest time, interdisciplinary studies lacked a real methodology. This changed with the publication of Allen Repko’s Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory (2008), which laid out exactly how one goes about engaging in interdisciplinary scholarship and research, through the methodology of integration.

In this excellent textbook, Repko lays out the history of interdisciplinary studies, discusses various theories of it, and then discusses how to make practical use of interdisciplinary studies in solving particular problems. Those may include how to successfully engage in (or whether to even have) urban planning, whether there are questions about literature that can only be answered using evolutionary psychology, or whether understanding how the brain works will help us to understand social interactions such as those of economics. The interdisciplinary scholar has to identify conflicts and then create common ground among the disciplines to produce an interdisciplinary understanding of how to solve the problem.

The different disciplines necessarily have their own methodologies, ways of organizing themselves and defining what counts as knowledge, which are oftentimes seemingly incongruent. Math and physics use math, with physics also involving research using the scientific method, as commonly understood. Chemistry has its own laboratory methods, as do the various levels of biology. However, the more complex the system, the less math one can use. And the scientific method—and judgment of what is a successful experiment—for biology is not the same as that for physics; in physics predictability and pure reproducibility are important features, while in biology you have unpredictability and varying degrees of reproducibility. To illustrate: If you don’t reproduce the results of someone’s biological experiment, neither may be wrong, since each organism is a unique individual; while in physics all protons and other subatomic parts are the same.

Psychology has case studies and methods drawn from both biology and the social sciences. The humane, or social, sciences have statistics and theories of human action, or praxeology. The humanities have various theories of textual analysis, ranging from close readings to imports from the humane sciences (theories of feminism, Marxism, etc.).

Interdisciplinary studies does have its own methodology, one that also encompasses those of each of the disciplines. Since the disciplines are related to one another, university students should be taught how to bring their knowledge together. The key is to teach students a theory or set of theories, such as those I listed above, that allows them to see the interconnections, to make sense of the differences among the disciplines and how to overcome those differences.

All that I have said implies that interdisciplinary studies should be the most difficult and demanding major in the university. Other university students should be introduced to the idea that the disciplines are interrelated, but they don’t have to master the knowledge that connects the disciplines.

Unfortunately, anyone who knows anything about interdisciplinary studies programs knows that most people in the university think the program is a complete joke.

The reason is that these programs are treated as clearing houses to keep students enrolled in the university who would otherwise have dropped out. For example, one of my interdisciplinary studies students had been a pre-med major, but was failing out, so she became a biology major. When she began failing out of that, she went to the interdisciplinary studies program, which had lower requirements to pass. Believe it or not, she was actually told that she could get into medical school with her interdisciplinary studies degree.

While it is certainly possible for a student to get into medical school with an interdisciplinary degree in which chemistry, biology, and, say, neuroscience, are the areas of disciplinary concentration, this would have to be a student who could have passed as a pre-med major. My student was misled about getting into medical school just to keep her in the university—and most of the students I taught were like her. Most had no business being at UT-Arlington, or any other university. They would probably end up with a lot of student loans and a degree they could not use for anything, since they were unlikely to get into graduate programs to finish their educations.

A few of my students, though, were extremely intelligent, hard-working students whose interests could not be contained by one or even two majors—and had thus chosen interdisciplinary studies. Each student had to essentially minor in three disciplines, with the interdisciplinary program designed to help them tie it all together. I had a student who wanted to be a radio psychiatrist like Dr. Laura, and thus was taking classes in mass communications, psychology, and biology. A student concentrating in chemistry, biology, and psychology would be preparing for neurological medicine. A student concentrating in geography, economics, and urban studies would be preparing for a career in urban planning. These are among the possibilities the best and brightest could achieve in a program such as this. For these students, interdisciplinary studies works as advertised.

But what happens when you have a classroom in which about 80 percent of your students are there to avoid failing out of the university, and about 20 percent are among the best and brightest? How do you even teach that class?

For students who want a truly integrated university education, interdisciplinary studies should be available—as the most difficult program in the university. That means students with the highest test scores, who will not be afraid or confused when they hear terms like “quantum physics.”

That is the program I thought I was getting into at UTA. What I got instead was the kind of program other departments make fun of. I could not continue in a program designed as this one was designed—and I later found out that the person who had recommended me for the position, whose adjunct position I had taken, had quit the position for the same exact reason.

Today, we have with Repko’s book an interdisciplinary textbook that legitimates a wide variety of “studies” programs that have historically lacked a unifying methodology. This opens some real possibilities, and not just for the interdisciplinary studies students who have to master the fundamentals of integration and the unifying concepts of interdisciplinary studies. Integration, along with the various complexity theories, could be used to make interdisciplinary studies into the unifying center of the university—with each student required to take the first semester interdisciplinary studies class to be introduced to the fact that the universe is indeed unified. That’s what interdisciplinary studies should be doing—contributing to the creation of a true university education, and not to the creation of an education bubble.