Why Interdisciplinary Education Doesn’t Go Far Enough

By Michael Gazzaniga, Director, Sage Center for the Study of Mind University of California, Santa Barbara

The liberal arts education is supposed to liberate the mind from its routine of rehearsing what it already knows, to explore the unknown. However, in the exploration of the unknown, physicists, biologists, humanists, social scientists, philosophers and other academics have become more and more specialized. Worse, they are forced to defend their theories, defend their disciplines, and defend their ways of thinking. In university life, each retirement or opening is viewed as an opportunity to restock with a new, better version of the same kind of item. The thought that maybe a fundamentally new idea or approach to a subject might be better is usually met with horror and hostility.

Those of us committed to the value and benefits arising from creating an environment of interdisciplinary thought battle the disciplinary norm all the time. We know how metaphor liberates the mind. We know how a great idea from literature can free up the stuck scientific mind trying discover new principles or applications from fresh observations and experiments. Guttenberg came up with the idea of printing press after visiting a country wine press. Before the winery trip, he couldn’t figure out how a single letter stamp would be useful. After the trip, he changed the world forever. Plot lines in one field can be moved to another with great benefit. A richness of ancillary knowledge is a powerful tool for generating new understanding and innovations.

Current efforts to facilitate interdisciplinary thought and discovery often involve holding joint lectures or some other academic device. In one attempt from my own career when I was Dean of Faculty at Dartmouth, I suggested the curriculum be inverted with freshman being exposed to small seminars jointly taught from different perspectives. Instead of channeling these neophytes into various introductory disciplinary courses, expose them to exciting perspectives. Any topic could be examined: say “empathy” or “light” or “poverty” and teach it simultaneously from the perspective of science, social science and literature. The students loved the idea, the alumni loved the idea, but most of the faculty did not. So how might this love for searching for underlying principles across many fields be encouraged earlier on in education, before the mind closes as Einstein suggested?

Maybe the technological wonders of the modern world can help. Imagine the world’s knowledge is electronically stored. It sits in the cloud, all of it. Now, imagine that an eager student wants to know more than the simple definition of a word. The student wants to see if a concept has many different codings in all kinds of fields. Imagine the world’s knowledge can be searched by conceptinstead of by the simple literacy of words alone. The student could discover that a concept framed in one way in biology emerges in literature, but with a different spin. Perhaps the student wants to understand suffering. How should they learn about it — as clinical measures of pain, as economic cost to society, or as the anguish illustrated in Of Human Bondage. Would they not be better served to see how suffering can be understood across disciplines? Is this not the point of education, to create humans with multi-faceted understandings of the world’s most important problems?

This is the future we envision. Students open their laptops and discover the world in all its complexity using new AI systems like Yewno. Imagine the student is not being told definitions. Imagine the student is discovering connections and forging new ones. It is a revolution and it is happening now.

Jun Ge