What is the role of interdisciplinarity in the future of knowledge? by Carl Gombrich

We are at the beginning of a knowledge revolution caused by the World Wide Web. The last comparable revolution is widely agreed to be the mass publication of books in the 15th Century. This previous democratising of knowledge and dissemination of information led to the decline of the power of the Christian Church, the rise of democracy and the rise of science. You could hardly think of three things, three grand movements which more influence our lives today!

Of course, whenever anyone talks of a revolution, you should be sceptical and grill them more closely. The technology historian, John Naughton, reminds us that we tend to overplay short term revolutionary effects and underplay the long term. For example, a pair of google glasses may seem revolutionary in allowing us to watch football while we talk to our friends or for allowing us to secretly check out a good-looking guy in a bar, but what are the long-term implications for privacy, for politics and even our ideas of intimacy and love? For sure, not all our predictions about this current revolution will come true; some will be overplayed and some underplayed. Nevertheless, despite the need to exercise caution in the discussion, changes are certainly afoot that will affect many aspects of the way we learn, do research and generally interact with our world.

Something we can expect to see more of as the revolution develops is a discussion of interdisciplinarity. International Baccalaureate students in general and ToK students in particular are usually familiar with the concept of interdisciplinarity. There are several definitions currently in circulation, but many writers agree that interdisciplinarity means something like ‘combining existing subjects or disciplines together to create a solution or a product that would not have been possible using a single discipline alone’.

Why, then, this growing interest in interdisciplinarity? We can give at least two reasons.

Firstly, when you click through on the web, you do not think whether you are studying some ‘discipline’ or another; you follow your interests to wherever necessary in order to solve the problem or learn more about a particular topic. The web is not constructed along disciplinary lines – far less, even, than most libraries – and this restructuring of information is affecting our relationship with learning, making us less aware of and maybe even antagonistic to disciplinary boundaries. Why should we be constrained by whether we are studying this discipline or that one?! Let’s just learn what we are interested in!

Secondly, many of what are called ‘complex, real-world problems’ are impossible to resolve, or even seriously approach, without the involvement of many disciplines. Areas of research such as Climate Change, Human Computer Interaction, Sustainability and Public Health each involve multiple disciplines. For example, to address Climate Change you need to consider, at least, chemistry, physics, politics and economics. But what about also psychology – to try to influence human behaviour? Or engineering – to try to build greener structures and machines? It is important to appreciate that these disciplines do not operate in isolation on these projects. Instead, the physics of the situation may determine what is politically possible; the economics may mean that we have to look for different chemical solutions, and so on.

This interacting of different disciplines, their connections and their differences brings us close to the sorts of questions students are asked to consider in ToK.

  • To what extent can I assume that my colleagues in different disciplines have the same assumptions as me?
  • If I work in the social sciences, do I have different standards for what constitutes evidence or proof from my scientific colleagues?
  • Is a quantitative approach the only way I can have certain knowledge in this situation, or will a qualitative approach help me deepen my understanding or to see problems I might have missed?
  • What role can value judgements play in agendas dominated by scientific data?

It is an exciting time for learning. And, indeed, the revolution, although it will certainly be disruptive, will bring great opportunities for creative and ground-breaking thought. The best new thought is most likely to come from those who put together ideas across existing disciplines in innovative ways. Students who are prepared to see problems from multiple perspectives and to question some of the basic tenets of existing disciplines will be well-placed to benefit from the coming changes.

  •  Carl Gombrich is the Programme Director of the new interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences BASc undergraduate degree at UCL. Carl has degrees in Maths, Physics and Philosophy and was a professional opera singer, having studied piano at the Guildhall School of Music and singing at the National Opera Studio. In his role as Programme Director, he is ‘fully blended’ and has a wide range of responsibilities associated with leading the Arts and Sciences degree, from curriculum development and teaching on the programme, to employer relations, acting as admissions tutor and liaising with schools. His intellectual interests include interdisciplinarity, expertise and the future of higher education.



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