Being disciplined

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.

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10 Comments on “Being disciplined”

  1. Eugene Gath Says:

    What should also be mentioned is one of his greatest contributions was the invention of differential and integral calculus. While Newton tends to get the credit, there is no doubt that Leibniz discovered it on his own. His notation is still in use. There is a lot of controversy about Newton/Leibniz even to this day.

  2. Who was it who said that unlike Universities, the world is not organised into Departments? And in my own lifetime, the fastest growth has been at interfaces; organo-metallic chemistry, molecular biology, developmental evolution.

  3. iainmacl Says:

    if anything, a higher education is really about developing a systematic approach to curiosity. The ‘discipline’ is in learning to focus, to constantly question and to be prepared to accept that many of our ‘common sense’ beliefs might not survive such scrutiny. We obtain fluency in curiosity through the particular subject area we may specialise in and whilst each is a different language we can at least understand that they are based on a syntax, a grammar and local idiom and that makes possible communication and mutual respect.

  4. Greg Foley Says:

    Thanks for the quote, Ferdinand!

    I think one of the problems with many of these discussions is that the main contributors are experts of some sort who have been learning continuously throughout their careers. Thus, it is not uncommon to read comments like that of Paul who talks about the growth of knowledge at the interfaces of disciplines, the implication being that students (novices) should be taught in a way that reflects what is being done at the cutting edge of (some but not all) science. But there are many cognitive scientist and educationalists who have written about how trying to teach novices as if they were experts is a seriously misguided approach to education. This kind of thinking inspires ideas like inquiry based learning and the like. (See work of Daniel Willingham, for example.)

    Getting back to the basic point, we have to remember that the bulk of students at third level education are in the 18-22 year old category and they are novices in everything. The basic question is, therefore: is it realistic to expect that students can learn effectively if they are expected to master subjects in a variety of disciplines? (Incidentally, I don’t think disciplines are defined arbitrarily, I think they have evolved ‘organically’ because they are based on a common set of philosophies, skills and techniques, at least in the sciences) Personally and based on everything I have read in the cognitive science literature (and my own teaching), I don’t think this is possible. My experience is that breadth is achieved at the expense of depth and depth is essential if you want to be that much desired ‘critical thinker’.

    Education has many purposes and one of the main ones is to give students a start in life and in their careers. The best way to do that is to try to make them ‘expert’ in something, not a novice in lots of different things. Over time and with lifelong learning, they will become more able to see problems from all sorts of perspectives (technical, social, economic etc.); to work, perhaps, at the boundaries between disciplines and, in extreme situations, become the polymath of old. (Not easy these days compared to the days of Leibniz or even Russell.)

    This is not to say that students should not have some variety and some element of choice in their studies. I think UCD do a good job in this regard with their Horizons approach.

  5. anna notaro Says:

    For anyone trained in the various disciplines known as “humanities” the concept of interdisciplinarity reminds of the work of French literary theorist Roland Barthes ( whose writings have provided multiple incitements to the creative crossing of disciplinary boundaries — history, philosophy, literature, linguistics, semiology, sociology, music, film, painting and photography. In fact in a previous comment to a blog post on a similar topic “A post-disciplinary academy” I was noting how ironic it is “that universities, supposedly communities where culture is produced, shared and disseminated have become bastions of ‘disciplinarity’, structured in departments/schools/faculties where intellectual limens are far from being permeable…”
    In truth, it is hardly surprising that disciplinarity and the academy have a common history, disciplinarity is a structural feature of the institutional organization of knowledge and universities have traditionally been concerned with the consolidation of canonical knowledge. Also, it might not be entirely accidental that the Latin term “disciplina” (instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge) has gradually evolved to include other meanings (penitential chastisement; punishment), thus establishing the idea that order is necessary for instruction, that education is disciplinary and one requires “to be disciplined” in order to be educated – the moral/behavioural aspect implicit in the title of today’s post.

    However, over the past twenty years or so, also thanks to the impact of scholars like Barthes, a cultural paradigm shift has occurred, and interdisciplinarity has become widely accepted in the academy, the only problem is that it has become itself part of the canon, it has lost any hint of indiscipline it might have contained to become a “new fashion”, as Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, has argued (a previous blog post “Does interdisciplinarity destroy academic freedom” discussed this issue

    Julie A. Buckler summed up our understanding of disciplinary evolution in 2009 when she wrote:

    The term “postdisciplinarity” evokes an intellectual universe in which we inhabit the ruins of outmoded disciplinary structures, mediating between our nostalgia for this lost unity and our excitement at the intellectual freedom its demise can offer us. Is the era of postdisciplinarity upon us now? Finally, “transdisciplinarity” refers to the highest level of integrated study, that which proposes the unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives and points toward our potential to think in terms of frameworks, concepts, techniques, and vocabulary that we have not yet imagined. It must be acknowledged, however, that the very notion of “transdisciplinarity” may strike many of us as chimerical, sinisterly monolithic, or as a ruse for smuggling back in old dreams of objectivity and universal knowledge. Are we then right back where we started, or does our investigation of disciplines and the nature of knowledge maintain our historical perspective?”

    Six year later we have excellent reasons to be concerned with our intellectual ecology. Global computer-¬mediated communication presents a new kind of leveling force. But will the enriched pool of online knowledge promote more specialization (the *myth* ‘a la Barthes of the ‘expert’, or will it promote more sharing among fields? And how should universities help students prepare themselves for constructive, inventive lives? Perhaps what we can learn from the example of Leibniz is that education is not about mere knowledge but a curiosity-power strong in questioning tradition and in opening new directions, it is not the possession so much as the attitude, not the breath of knowledge as the thirst for knowledge or the appetite for delicious chocolate biscuits…

    • Greg Foley Says:

      That’s all very interesting but the key question for me is this: what is the best way that I can give a young person a start in their career, while instilling some sort of appreciation for the value of education and a recognition that education is a lifelong process.

      My experience of teaching on a multidisciplinary programme, and my reading of cognitive science, would suggest that the best way to do this is to focus on a well-defined range of subjects that require a well-defined range of skills and aptitudes – what we refer to as the ‘disciplines’. Depth is crucial in my view. Trying to do too much at undergraduate level leads to the acquisition of surface knowledge, shallow thinking and rote learning.

      Perhaps this represents a science/humanities divide, but I think there is very little point in adopting a philosophical position on education (as some of the quotes in the above comment seem to be doing) when those positions might be pedagogically or cognitively unsound. While education is by no means a science, it must be research-informed at least.

      But a key point to be made in all of this is that the graduates of our universities are not, in any way, the ‘finished article’. Their 3/4 years in undergraduate education is just the start and, over the years, they will ‘grow’ in all sorts of directions, depending on the demands placed on them in their working lives, or simply on how they evolve as people. I think those of us in education vastly overestimate the impact we have on the lives of our students.

  6. anna notaro Says:

    Aha, if only I had a penny for the times that a ‘philosophical position’ has been deemed ‘interesting enough’ before being dismissed by a ‘but’! 🙂
    Yes this might be a case of humanities/science *disciplinary* divide, in that from my perspective the whole point resides exactly in adopting a theoretical position before testing it in a practical, classroom situation, this is research-informed education.
    To make just one example, the concept of ‘radical/critical pedagogy’ (I’m referring to the work of Paulo Freire, considered to be “the inaugural philosopher” of such an approach ) would make no sense without an appreciation of its philosophical/ideological underpinnings.

    • Greg Foley Says:

      Unfortunately, though, philosophical positions tend to be very resilient in education despite the fact they are not supported by evidence, or in some cases contradicted by evidence. For me, education always has to be informed by practice and changes must be incremental. They must be informed by evidence and only based on a particular ‘philosophy’ if that philosophy is itself informed by evidence from fields such as cognitive science or psychology. It seems to me that there is a ‘parallel universe’ of educationalists who constantly call for a revolution in education, based on nothing more that a belief or a philosophy.

      • anna notaro Says:

        ‘nothing more than a belief or a philosophy’ how exquisitely philistine…

        • Greg Foley Says:

          When a belief or philosophy impacts on young people’s education we don’t have the luxury of valuing it for its own sake. It’s not being a philistine to treat philosophy critically and demand that it be tested if there is a chance it might may lead to poor educational outcomes.

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