The GAO Report: An Interdisciplinary Future

Opinion by Shelley Gao
April 19, 2010, 12:35 a.m.

The GAO Report: An Interdisciplinary Future

There has been a trend towards advancing interdisciplinary approaches in modern academia. Stanford prides itself on the strength of its teaching and research transcending disciplinary boundaries. We can choose between more than 50 interdisciplinary degree programs, ranging from public policy to human biology. In addition, there are a dozen laboratories, institutes and centers dedicated to interdisciplinary research, like the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Woods Institute for the Environment.

This shift is occurring not only in the humanities (English, philosophy, history) and social sciences (sociology, political science, economics), but also in the natural sciences. In January, the National Institute of Health outlined a research agenda that emphasizes the importance of collaboration among scientists from different disciplines as a foundation for the future success of biomedical research.

Last year, Mark C. Taylor, a professor of religion at Columbia University, published a controversial op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It” in The New York Times in which he called for a radical restructuring of American higher education. After providing a bleak assessment of the fate of graduate students in non-professional schools–no job, irrelevant skills, large debt–Taylor recommended replacing permanent departments, responsible for producing “narrow scholarship,” with “problem-focused programs.” Topics like water, law and money could serve as “zones of inquiry.” The university curriculum should aim toward combining various approaches to form pragmatic solutions to the world’s problems.

This proposal seems rather drastic, and undervalues the importance of disciplinary strength in informing interdisciplinary studies. Indeed, the existence of interdisciplinary programs is based on the flourish of individual disciplines. Each academic field provides important frameworks to understand the world, techniques to conduct research and the expertise that is necessary to fuel the growth of interdisciplinary approaches. But, Taylor’s proposal does effectively highlight the increasing relevance of practical application in today’s education.

Interdisciplinary studies provide better training to deal with the “real world.” Fields like business, government and non-profits require critical thinking based on various perspectives, models and theories. Contemporary problems cannot be solved within any single area of study. The complexity of challenges like global warming, national security, nuclear non-proliferation and global health require innovative and practical solutions that employ tools and knowledge across a wide range of fields.

Some critics, however, consider this focus on breadth rather than depth as lacking in intellectual rigor. During the era of university budget cuts, there is debate regarding whether resources should be allocated to departments based on traditional disciplines or directed to “institutes” supporting interdisciplinary work.

The tendency for fragmentation is a valid point of contention. While most interdisciplinary programs require the formulation of a coherent and integrated study plan, there is a tendency for students to sample courses across two or three departments without developing expertise in any. The lack of immersion in a particular field makes compete mastery of core concepts and methodology unlikely. Without specialization, it is difficult to produce cutting edge research or set new intellectual boundaries.

At Stanford, pursuing interdisciplinary studies allows for the flexibility to cultivate solid grounding in a discipline, particularly through opportunities like independent research or an honors thesis. In addition, there is value in gaining exposure to different methodological approaches. Overcoming the tensions among the different methods and paradigms championed by each discipline can be an interesting process. Having recently switched from majoring in history to international relations due to expediency and interest, I realized that crossing the discipline boundary is not so easy.

There is a natural proclivity to bias what is familiar over the unknown. During the first few weeks, I clung to a historian’s intuition, utterly bewildered by all this business to do with hypothesis, variables and causal logic. Instead of looking at cross tabulations of data and conducting statistical analysis, all I wanted to do was bury myself in archival documents and get a “feel” for the situation. After some struggle, I began to appreciate and integrate the other methods used to grapple with the uncertainty of reality. As someone who is rather fond of the Great Man Theory, and has previously derided my political science friends’ love of models, the transition to accepting and practicing a social scientist’s mode of inquiry has proved to be challenging but valuable in many ways.

Now that bringing together specific fields has become a fixture in the modern university, perhaps the future will involve attempts to create synthesis and bridge the broader gap between different branches of knowledge.

Shelley Gao ’11 writes weekly about campus issues. Contact Shelley: [email protected].

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