Does interdisciplinarity destroy academic freedom?
Here’s an interesting item: Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, has trained his guns at what he describes as the ‘new fashion’ of interdisciplinarity. Well, I suppose it all depends on what you consider to be ‘new’. As I argued in one of the early posts in this blog, you could say that in earlier ages almost all scholarship was interdisciplinary; and a spectacular example of an intellectual devoting himself to interdisciplinarity was Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, born 362 years ago.
In fairness, I think that Thomas Docherty has a more specific target: the attempt by research funding agencies to specify certain interdisciplinary themes in their funding programmes (he uses ‘science and heritage’ as an example). But he cannot really mean – and if we read further, we find he does not mean – that academics should not cast their eyes over the boundaries of the discipline into which they were trained. In fact, he goes on to recognise that his own ‘discipline’ of English grew out of other disciplines. So what is he on about? When stripped down to its essentials, his point really is that nobody, and in particular not those with money to fund research, should be suggesting to anyone else what aspects of life they should be researching. He believes that such funding programmes are all about securing the ‘compliance with policy’ of the academic community. So the latter should determine themselves what they propose to work on. Anything else erodes or destroys academic freedom.
There are two aspects to this, and both deserve a brief analysis. The first is Thomas Docherty’s attack on interdisciplinarity; and here he is on very shaky ground. Disciplines are all artificial to some extent, and reflect an understanding of knowledge at some point in history when they secured recognition. In the early development of universities, when they were essentially off-shoots of monasteries, the only disciplines were theology (the ‘queen of sciences’), philosophy and mathematics. It was only with the Enlightenment that other subjects were added. The biggest burst of new disciplines came in the 19th century with the growth of science and engineering, and then in the 20th century various ‘new’ profession-oriented subjects claimed the discipline label. Now there is a rather charming Wikipedia page that purports to ‘list’ all of the disciplines, and for what it’s worth (not much, I think) it comes up with 42.
All of this is highly artificial. If we believe that disciplines are such because they can lay claim to unique intellectual tools that are different in each one, then we should think again. For example, Professor Docherty’s ‘discipline’ has (perfectly properly in intellectual terms) tried out all kinds of tools borrowed from other areas, such as political science, sociology, history, philosophy etc. It seems to me that there is no magic at all in the boundaries between disciplines, and they have merit (if they have that) chiefly because in each case the academy has created some pedagogical tools that have some use in educating students, and which might not be recreated effectively if a student’s education were to meander too much between all these areas. But that is almost entirely meaningless once you are talking about highly skilled academics undertaking expert research.
The second aspect is Thomas Docherty’s dislike of a set agenda for research. In a nutshell, he doesn’t think that the taxpayer has any business directing programmes of research. If taxpayers have any particular concerns or needs that research may solve, they should sit back and wait for the academic community to get there, all in their good time. But that is wholly unsustainable. We need to see academic research as fulfilling two functions, both of them deserving of funding and support. One is to push out the boundaries undirected; and the other is to answer those questions that society urgently needs to have solved. An example of an area of research that he really doesn’t think should be specifically funded by government is the environment; but we know that there are huge issues putting the planet in peril which the research community needs to address urgently, and it seems to me to be wholly silly to suggest that the government and its agencies cannot set out a ringfenced fund for this.
It is of course always right to be vigilant to ensure that academic autonomy is protected. But to argue that this precludes government from funding interdisciplinary research is absurd. There is nothing sacred about the subject areas we now sometimes call ‘disciplines’. Our academic ancestors would have been horrified to hear that, say, ‘management’ or ‘architecture’ might be considered a discipline. So let us not think that there is anything sacred about their boundaries; or that society as a whole has no business asking us questions that cannot be answered from just within one of them; or even less, that society has no business asking our scholars any questions at all.Explore posts in the same categories: education, higher education, science, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.