Against interdisciplinary majors: An interview with Professor Priya Satia

April 7, 2017, 9:01 a.m.

We have messy lives that we try to construct around our complicated interests, and for many of us, college is where we lay the foundations. The Big Question, of course, is where we want those foundations to lead.

I always figured that interdisciplinary majors were the way to go. They look so much like an opportunity to incorporate two or more disparate fields into a single glorious degree. As a pathologically indecisive person, they seemed like an easy, clean-cut answer to the very hard question of “What interests you?”

But according to Priya Satia, that’s exactly the wrong way to look at interdisciplinary majors. She suggests that, although interdisciplinary majors are designed to allow students to tailor their studies and pursue their specific interests, they may not offer the clarity and self-knowledge we expect.

Professor Satia is a professor in Stanford’s History Department and specializes in British Empire history – particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. She has more degrees than most college students have average hours of sleep, and her studies span chemistry, international relations, economics, and history.

And yet, with a veritable menagerie of academic perspectives, Priya Satia knows where she stands – with both feet firmly planted in history. And she emphasizes that lens, that consistent method of thought, is both an intellectual priority and an incredible asset.

The merits of classical disciplines, as Satia describes them, lie primarily in shaping the method of a student’s thoughts. “They give you a set of tools,” Satia commented, which you can cross-apply and take with you no matter where your interests wander. “I think it really helps you, just kind of psychologically, to have that core, and it gives you an intellectual identity.” This mental toolbox can be hard to develop in interdisciplinary majors without already knowing exactly how you think best.

Satia juxtaposes history and the STS major as an example. “Say, you know, right now between the ages of 18 and 22, ‘I’m really interested in the relationship between society and technology… I’m going to study that as a historian, and supplement it with x, y, z.’ Now, zoom forward 10 years, and now the question I’m most preoccupied with is inequality. As a historian, I learned that you can read texts from the past, you can think about them critically and put them in conversation with each other. Those are the tools I’m going to use to now answer these questions.”

The way that we think about problems is incredibly important in efficiently working toward solutions, and interdisciplinary majors – while designed to explore the cross-sections of student interests – may become too specific to be widely applicable. “It doesn’t arm you with tools that will enable you to answer any number of questions,” Satia concludes.

Satia argues that the more you pursue an interdisciplinary major simply because it has the right name or the right description that includes the words you’re looking for, “without a really good understanding of what the disciplines are that make up that program, the more that could backfire intellectually. 

“You could come out with less of a sense of who you are as a thinker; you may come out unable to complete the sentence ‘I am a ___. I am a historian, I am a sociologist, these are the set of tools I have acquired to answer this question about society, or science, or what have you.’”

This interview wasn’t the brutal critique of interdisciplinary majors that it might sound like. Satia herself completed an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree in international relations, and she makes it clear that the mix of methodology offered by interdisciplinary courses can work for some people. “If you come to it having a really clear sense of what its [an interdisciplinary major’s] component disciplines are and you want that sum of all parts, that’s great. But if you go to it because the name lines up with subjects that you’re interested in, you may end up with no clarity and a lot of confusion.” The difference for her is whether a student is “going into it well-informed versus going into it lost.”

Satia draws on her own experience to further illustrate her point. While talking about her chemistry and IR double major, she explained, “I had two interests; I was interested in inequality, and I was interested in how the universe worked. That’s what I wanted to explore philosophically as a science major, but I had this other interest too, this real world interest – why are some places poor and some places rich – and those two big questions are separate to me.

“Most students come in here with one or two big questions like that, and you need some guidance as to what is a discipline that works best for you, what’s most compelling to you and what you buy. I tried economics, I did a master’s in economics, and I could see the power of that, but I didn’t buy it in the end. I didn’t think it was arriving at the right answers to that question of inequality; I thought history made more sense to me.”

Going further in that vein, Satia touches on a foundational element of college in the U.S. “I think that, so far as college is about figuring out your identity as a thinker, and having some confidence in your ability to think that way, you really need a discipline. And the word is literal, right? Mental discipline.”

Finding your discipline, understanding and exploring varying (and sometimes opposing) schools of thought, is a huge part of The College Experience™. And while interdisciplinary majors are neatly packaged to encompass two or three disciplines, Satia suggests that exploring each discipline in depth may be of greater benefit to students.

“I think sometimes students come with a kind of preconceived sense of what they’re interested in and they don’t realize — let’s say you’re interested in international relations, you could major in the interdisciplinary major by that name, but you could also study IR as a political scientist or as a historian. I think the only kind of intellectual case for doing it as international relations is if you’re conscious that you want to have exposure to all those different disciplines. You shouldn’t think that that is the only way to approach the subject.”

In the end, Satia recommends studying under a major that will send you into the future with an understanding of your own mind – how it works best, what skills you use best and most enjoy using. “You’ve got to be really clear what you are first, and what you are second. You want to know what step to take first when you’re thinking about how to solve a problem.”

When it comes down to it, of course, people work well with different approaches, and diversity of thought is imperative. On the broad set of influences in her life, Satia says, “Everything stays with you. My interest in flying has been a huge influence on the work I’ve done as a historian. All those things stay a part of what you do, it’s not like anything is wasted. It’s just what you prioritize. How much you want to devote your life to one thing over another. So is something an influence? Or is it your profession – is it what you do?”


Contact Maximiliana Bogan at ebogan ‘at’

Login or create an account