In an interesting comment on one of the posts from this blog, Dr Greg Foley (of my old university, DCU) argued as follows:
‘My view is that when people are immersed in a discipline and they gradually acquire the basic knowledge and skills of that discipline, they acquire the ability and the confidence to become critical thinkers – in that discipline. To extend that critical thinking ability into other realms requires further study to gain the requisite discipline-specific knowledge and skill.’
In fact, how we address disciplines, and the extent to which we allow, encourage or insist on ‘interdisciplinarity’ has become one of the major questions of higher education over recent years. Research projects and centres, and increasingly university courses, have tackled topics that cross one or more disciplinary boundaries – something that would have been very rare when I was a student.
Nevertheless, this is not exactly a new issue. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was born nearly 370 years ago. He was a mathematician, a philosopher, a lawyer, a scientist, an alchemist, a theologian, an inventor, an archivist, an historian and a political scientist – and maybe other things besides. He was German, but he wrote in Latin and French. He strayed across the different disciplines and activities with consummate ease.
But what would we make of Leibniz today? Would we admire his eclectic scholarship, or would we suspect him of dumbing everything down? Would we see him as the typical modularisation project, with all its benefits and risks?
There are few who would still dispute that many of the world’s problems can only be resolved by people who are able to engage different areas of knowledge in order to reach a coherent analysis and propose solutions. But it is also common to hear doubts expressed about the intellectual integrity of interdisciplinary teaching and research, and the charge that it involves superficial analysis.
It may well be true true that scholars need to have a good grounding in the disciplines they wish to study. But we need to ensure that specialisation is achieved within a broader context, including an understanding of relevant knowledge from other areas; and not just adjacent areas, but from across the whole spectrum. For example, addressing questions of ethics is becoming increasingly important for discovery in science. In any case, we need to remember that ‘disciplines’ are relatively arbitrary constructs, and that it is perfectly possible to have deep learning and scholarship by addressing issues within different boundaries. Some subject areas now described as ‘disciplines’ are in themselves new amalgamations of what were previously discrete areas, such as biotechnology, or indeed economics. It is not that long ago that only philosophy, theology and mathematics were accepted as true disciplines.
We could therefore do worse than looking again at some of the great polymaths of past ages, including Gottfried von Leibniz, and ask whether their approach to knowledge was in fact rather modern by our current standards. We might ask whether our higher education programmes are still too much constrained by subject area boundaries, and whether as a result our graduates do not find it as easy as they should to address the problems facing society. And we should ask how we can protect intellectual integrity and rigour in that setting.
For what it is worth, Leibniz received another interesting accolade: he had a biscuit named after him.