Where is ‘interdisciplinarity’? – by Neil Baldwin

Kudos to Editor-in-Chief Robert Frodeman; Associate Editors Julie Thompson Klein and Carl Mitcham; Managing Editor J. Britt Holbrook; the distinguished Editorial Board of Jose Antonio Lopez Cerezo, Wolfgang Krohn, William Newell, Nancy Tuana, and Peter Weingart; and the entire editorial and production team at Oxford University Press for the new, hefty (580 pp), substantial and insightful Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity just published last month.

I will return to this signal accomplishment in a moment.

But first, by way of roundabout response to the title-question posed above, two citations from the September 3 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education special section, What’s the Big Idea? in which, for the tenth anniversary of The Chronicle Review, scholars and illustrators were asked, “What will be the defining idea of the next decade, and why?”

Elaine Howard Ecklund says it will be Abandoning Disciplines: “[It] will be tough,” she concedes. “Our entire tenure and promotion system is controlled by disciplinary review boards…Universities have traditionally prized disciplinary purity and specificity, but that approach is ill-equipped to nurture the kind of expansive, creative, multipronged thinking that is needed to meet our most pressing problems.”

Mary Beard says the next big idea will have to be The Dark Ages — or, Rather, How to Prevent Them: “Whose culture [is it]? What culture? And how will (or should) cultural priorities evolve to reflect changes in the world political order?”

The jacket photo of The Oxford Handbook is a huge, luminous floating computerized portrait of our earth, the globe, at the time of Pangaea. Its cautionary symbolism forced me to step back and take the large — and long — view, a healthy perspective for any self-respecting, introspectively-honest professor.  Many pixels have been expended on the paradoxical mixture of emotions that swirl through the mind of an intellectual designated, for orderly reasons, to a certain department in a certain building on a certain campus — the most poignant of which is the feeling one gets from time to time that knowledge is ideally the property of no-one and the province of  everyone.

Nature is interdisciplinary and thus it follows that the mind predicated upon the phenomenal world will not always follow a proscribed path.

One of the redeeming attributes of the new Oxford Handbook is that it recognizes this fact of life. Julie Thompson Klein and Richard Parncutt question the received notion of privileged works as the sole signposts in art history; Carole Palmer reminds us that information originates by being scattered; Paul Thagard points to the inherently collaborative nature of cognitive science; Veronica Boix-Mansilla asserts that interdisciplinary learning is the most pragmatic of all epistomologies; J. Britt Holbrook questions the integrity of the definition of “peer” as a way to dissect peer-review; Clark A. Miller endorses the velocity of proliferation of centers and institutes as a salutary fragmentation of disciplines; Bill Newell stresses the importance of continuing to infuse undergraduate general education curricula with interdisciplinary courses that respect the unique brains of  “net-gen” freshmen; Stephanie Pfirman and Paula J.S. Martin show how collegiality and interdisciplinarity go hand in hand.

These are just some selections from a seminal and inspirational volume that should be required reading for all of us — in higher education and beyond — who see college and university cultures as permeable membranes, letting in diverse molecules of knowledge from the wider, ever-changing world…and thereby releasing multi-perspectived young citizens outward to that world.

— N.B. 


and furthermore, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea…He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.” [cited by Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library,  in his October 1, 2010 welcoming address at a conference at Harvard to discuss the possibility of creating a National Digital Library.]

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