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Interdisciplinary Focus

The Need Beyond Disciplines

by Ted Lyon, professor of Spanish, BYU

Ben, a bright, but unfocused university student, recently shared his academic desires with me. I had known of his phenomenal abilities with computers, his excellent people skills, his unbounded love for learning, and his never-ending questions.

“I’ve finally decided what I want to study in the university,” he excitedly reported. I nodded, eager to finally know his focused dedication to academic discipline.

“I want a classical education,” he proudly announced.

“And what does that mean for you?” I inquired.

“Well,” he said, “I’ll have to study a lot of history, which I love, and Greek and Latin, to be able to read literature in the original languages; I have been told that translations just don’t give the true meanings. I’m also fascinated by archaeological finds I’ve been reading about, so I plan to take advanced classes and participate in some digs in Egypt or Turkey. I want to study Arabic in depth to see how that culture relates to the classical world as well, and. . . .”

I had to cut him off. Ben was very sincere, excited, and anxious to get going and had been doing a lot of reading and learning on his own. My next question dampened his flame. “In what department will you major?” I asked. A big pause. He was wounded, caught off guard, and I too was hurt by having to bring him down to the reality of university life.

“Well, I dunno; do I have to major in a single department? Can’t I just take good classes that all relate? You know, a real classical education?”

Unfortunately, I had to explain that such a personalized, but perfectly logical study was not available at most universities. His desires would cut across at least four departments: history, languages, humanities, and anthropology—that would be nearly impossible to carry off in four or five years.

Current organization of departments in most U.S. universities follows a model established nearly a century ago by European traditions and institutions. Since that time, most universities have fallen into lock-step uniformity, without always considering the needs and desires of students in the fast-moving world-village of the twenty-first century. Institutions have divided academic study into standard compartmentalized units without examining whether these departments still meet student needs when they leave the university.

This compartmentalization often results in conflict among departments as knowledge expands and borders between disciplines become fuzzy. Most university professors will admit to having witnessed “turf” battles, where a department’s new course offering may encroach on the sacred territory that another has marked as their private domain.

Departmental barriers have been extremely resistant to change. Universities have not kept up with the ever-changing needs of students as they enter the workforce. In the current academic world, some of the most exciting discoveries have come from combined fields of study, such as genetic engineering, neuro-chemistry, astrophysics, environmental engineering, multicultural studies, osteopaleontology, and, at BYU, a unique program in molecular genealogy. Faculty research indeed has become increasingly interdisciplinary.

A delightful example is Freeman J. Dyson, a professor at Princeton’s very interdisciplinary Institute of Advanced Study. Dyson has combined his own discipline—physics—with astronomy, microbiology, ecology, and biology to produce such innovative and readable books as Infinite in All Directions and Disturbing the Universe.

A further example is William H. McNeill’s very broad book, Plagues and Peoples, in which the world-famous historian expands his scope to view the way disease has altered demographic movements. “How could such a small band of Spaniards—approximately 500—so easily conquer the Aztec empire with its millions of trained warriors?” His question expanded to include medicine, anthropology, governmental policy, early exploration, and more, as he involved himself in the entire history of world disease.

Large universities are now filled with newly created centers and institutes that cross disciplinary fences and bring professors together from multiple departments. Yet much too infrequently do universities involve their undergraduate students in the excitement of interdisciplinary studies; they must wait until they become graduates or faculty. Still, when they go into the “real” world, they will likely be involved in work that carries them beyond the realms of a single discipline. Life is simply not a compartmentalized major. Employers frequently reward those employees who bring breadth to their work.

Interdisciplinary courses and approaches at a university need not be anti-disciplinary. Too many professors, stuck in a single discipline, view interdisciplinary education as undisciplined. This need not be the case. If interdisciplinary programs are merely a potpourri of similar-sounding courses, held together only by geography or language, then they may indeed lack disciplinary cohesiveness. Further, if they are a series of courses that are really anti-disciplinary attacks, then they do no favor to students either. However, students who can handle the rigors of advanced courses in three or four departments should be able to see much farther than a traditional major in any one of the departments, and eventually add more to their career after graduation.

Noting the great waste of time, talent, and money that results when once-eager freshman students drop out after the first or second semester, BYU, along with many other universities, has instituted Freshman Academy. Students who choose this option may register for American Heritage, a religion course, a foreign language, and a class from their major. The same students work together in all classes and the professors coordinate a unified learning experience. Not only has the program kept many more students in college, but it has also produced a high level of interdisciplinary cooperation and excitement about learning.

At BYU, as well as across the country, undergraduate students planning to go to medical, dental, or law school, or study for an MBA degree, are often counseled to complete a broadly-based major different from the specific field of future specialization. While this is not a precise example of interdisciplinary study, it does indicate that they will be more “marketable.” And, the fact that they have to complete the necessary prerequired courses for the specific discipline provides an interdisciplinary effect in the students.

Wilfred Griggs, professor of ancient scripture, and Scott Woodward, professor of microbiology, both at BYU, have combined energies and knowledge in their studies of DNA taken from Egyptian mummies. Students who have participated with them have written honors theses combining history, languages, culture, and even the study of textiles. The result is an expansion of the limited perspectives of a single discipline to include two or three others, which creates an excitement in learning that carries them into unique, broadly-based careers.

Interdisciplinary study encourages high levels of very disciplined thinking about broad, knotty, and unresolved problems, epic concerns such as poverty, migration, power struggles, ethnocentricity, and so on, which a single academic department only views partially. Pushing the limits of one’s specific discipline takes the researcher (read, undergraduate student) into new territories. Interdisciplinary studies can be a unifying approach that focuses on the world through a combination of related disciplines. New insight and new vision is the inevitable result of good interdisciplinary education.

I offer a personal example. Eighteen years ago the honors program dean asked two BYU colleagues and me to develop and teach an honors “colloquium.” I asked her, “And just what is a colloquium?” She explained that it was a wide-ranging course that allowed each professor to develop his or her own area, coordinated with the disciplines of the other faculty members. I asked her what the subject should be. She responded with a twinkle, “Truth!” We planned together and created a year-long general education course which we titled “Shaping the Modern Mind.” The broad title gave us latitude to combine the three disciplines in which we were each well prepared: social science, biological science, and the humanities.

For our texts we selected the best books that each of us had read in the past five or six years, and then attempted to relate each book to the three broad areas of our expertise. With the students we discussed how the novel Bless Me, Ultima looks beyond Hispanic Culture in the southwest U.S. and focuses on the sociology of minorities anywhere in the world. We studied the scientific background of Desert Solitaire and its unique ecological vision, but also probed the English writing techniques that make it such an enduring essay. Students in this course read a book a week and related each to basic themes of conflict, cultural change, dependence, and human and biological ecology. We as professors grew too—often in unexpected ways—and have each shifted some of our personal research as a result of this in-depth interdisciplinary course. We are grateful for a university that allows such visionary innovation.

Some argue that interdisciplinary studies cripple our students by throwing them into the big bad world without the depth gained by examining a single discipline. This argument may have had some validity in a day when all French majors became French teachers, or economics majors went directly into jobs using skills acquired in college—simply no longer the case. Many university students now use their degrees merely to gain admission to quite unrelated graduate programs. Others, political science majors for example, might pursue a career in that area for a few years, but statistics show that ten years later they will be in new, unrelated professions. Many will start their own businesses. Others accept new opportunities brought on by family or friends.

Instead of preparing students for a specific career, the university must assist them in learning to read well and thoroughly, think deeply, write clearly, and analyze critically. These skills should be honed in both traditional disciplines as well as in interdisciplinary studies. After all, we are a university. This is a place where we unite, where we come together to see knowledge through a unified lens—a place where we do not split knowledge into unrelated prisms, but rather, into a focused whole.