IN TRYING to make themselves relevant in the face of a changing world, academic institutions use “big words.” “Interdisciplinarity” is one of them. An evidence of this is the offering of general education curriculum in college. Instead of single-discipline courses like sociology, history, and philosophy among others, universities now offer courses such as Understanding the Self and Contemporary World.
One time, a former student asked me to explain Rene Descartes’ philosophy. I thought that she was studying or working on a philosophy subject. Only to find out that it was for another subject, which because of interdisciplinarity – has to cover or include philosophical topics.
Unfortunately, and as it appeared to me, my former student was woefully fed with inadequate diet (to borrow F. Copleston’s expression) on their topic in Descartes. She ended up understanding that Descartes is an empiricist. I then realized that her teacher has little background in philosophy, and that she was given this newly implemented general education course.
My former student’s experience has made me think that big words such as “interdisciplinarity” should not be used if we are not yet capable of genuinely doing them. A word is not just a “word.” It represents a reality. The reality could be a network of complex human relationships.
Then that common argument: “because in the real world we have to work together.” True. No doubt that in reality problems and daily concerns have to be viewed from different angles. Urban planning for example cannot just be the concern of architects and engineers. Basically cultural anthropologists and economists also have a say on the arrangement and usage of spaces.
Approaching a problem and finding its solution from different perspective using two or more specializations or approaches is basically interdisciplinarity. Note however that each discipline that seeks to contribute to the process of problem solving is, as a matter of precondition, established, grounded, and clearly governed by its own analytic rules, scientific methods, and philosophical assumptions.
Thus, genuine or real interdisciplinarity presupposes clear and established mastery of disciplines. It is the convergence of specialists in different fields who seek to use their expertise and in the spirit of collaboration enter into an enterprise of engagement.
It is therefore wrong to use the word interdisciplinary when referring to the mere collection of researches that are either loosely connected or not connected at all. This we find in some academic journals that pride themselves to be interdisciplinary, only to find papers on various topics that are compiled without any unifying theme. Thus one would read a ridiculous journal where the first few articles are on topics related to biology, only to be followed by topics on physical education, maritime, and then media.
No wonder that with this kind of orientation publications abound but social problems abound all the more. We simply need to describe this situation in all honesty and accuracy. This is the effect of the commodification of education. Driven by profit and motivated by economic interests in the spirit of competition, academics are mindlessly playing a rat race where they have to become the experts needed by their university.
Sadly, people have forgotten that becoming an expert is a lifetime process and it cannot be manufactured overnight. Measured against the contingencies of life with all its challenges and hardships, expertise goes beyond publications.