13 How do we DO interdisciplinarity?

Janina Misiewicz

Version I Authors: Alex Otis, Kat Holmes, Ashley Hall, Maxwell Cook, Mariah Potts, Tim Moreau, Zach Newquist


“Why do I need to learn this? I’ll never use it in real life.”

The relevancy of education is often overlooked by students, especially young students who have not yet graduated from high school. “Relevancy” is an essential component of interdisciplinarity. First, what does it mean for something to be relevant? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “relevancy” is “bearing on or connected with the matter in hand; closely relating to the subject or point at issue; pertinent to a specified thing.” In other words, relevancy is constantly changing and dependent on the present moment. One of the biggest downfalls of modern education is the restrictive and controlling aspect of it. If students are not engaged with a subject because they believe it’s irrelevant, no amount of force will change their minds, or if they do change their minds, the decision comes from outside, not from within. If relevancy is correlated with time and circumstance, then students may think differently about algebra II or the Gulf War in five or ten years, but the decision should come from them for it to be a meaningful, beneficial experience.

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CCBY Kevin Dooley https://flic.kr/p/e3CMyY

Education is real. Education is now. Education is not a simulation preparing students for an imaginary destination. Students arrived at the destination when they opened their eyes for the first time, took their first step, tried their first carrot, and looked up at the sky for the first time, wondering, “why is the sky blue?”

David Brooks explains the “suffer now, succeed later” ideology of the modern era in “The Organization Kid,” an article published by the Atlantic in 2001. In his harsh criticism of millennialism, Brooks shines a light on the damaging effect that order and control have had on modern classrooms. Below, he describes the “work now, play later” ideology that has permeated across college campuses since the 1980’s:

“An activity—whether it is studying, hitting the treadmill, drama group, community service, or one of the student groups they found and join in great numbers—is rarely an end in itself. It is a means for self-improvement, résumé-building, and enrichment. College is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement, and they are always aware that they must get to the next step (law school, medical school, whatever) so that they can progress up the steps after that.”

If students are living their lives in preparation for life, when will they start living? When do rules and regulations pay off? The answer is never. If students aren’t free to be curious, engaged, and invested in what they’re learning, then they may never be curious, engaged, or invested in their lives. Education is about more than passing a test or being accepted to the “right” school, it’s about self-discovery and personal growth as an individual.

How Does Interdisciplinarity Fit In?

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CCBY woodleywonderworks https://flic.kr/p/djaFxZ

Interdisciplinary studies is a disruptive ideology that takes control away from educators and puts it where it belongs: in the hands of students. “Work now, play later” sends the message to students that now is never good enough; that education will be relevant later. The goal of interdisciplinarity is to be relevant now.

By pursuing interdisciplinary studies in college, students are able to develop important skills like solving complex problems and thinking outside the box. They develop these skills because there is no predetermined curriculum waiting for them when they start their first day of college: interdisciplinary students create a plan that combines all their interests into a single, personalized major. Students who follow this format learn more about themselves and what they want from their educational experience than students who passively accept a predetermined curriculum based on a single field of study. Interdisciplinary students are actively engaged with their education, involved with every decision that’s made. It’s all on them. Due to the responsibility associated with interdisciplinarity, students must learn how to make concrete decisions, how to effectively combine multiple disciplines into a cohesive major, and how to know what they want. Suddenly, education is relevant again.

The skills that interdisciplinary students learn by simply being interdisciplinary majors are relevant in every facet of their lives, not just during their undergraduate college days. As noted in the previous chapter, employers like employees who know what they want, are confident in their decisions, think independently, know their strengths and weaknesses, and are curious about life. Many post-graduation opportunities don’t even ask about students’ majors in college because they’re more interested in who candidates are as people. A person who is genuinely interested in what they’re currently doing is much more valuable to an organization than a person who is doing something as a means to an end.

But How Do We DO Interdisciplinarity?

Most, if not every, system in the world depends on interdisciplinarity to function. A doctor can’t diagnose his patients with specific diseases if he doesn’t understand how the entire human body works. Walmart can’t operate if there are no manufacturers supplying them with goods or accountants monitoring their spending or people buying their products. An auto mechanic needs to understand how cars works, in their entirety, to fix a single problem. Everything in the world is interrelated. Every detail is a tiny piece to a very large, complicated whole. If people want to be successful in life, it makes sense to understand the big picture, which is, in a word, interdisciplinarity.

The interconnected of life is so complex and massive that it almost seems counterintuitive to teach students single disciplines, completely separated from one another. The question—“how do we do interdisciplinarity?”—is a rhetorical question because everyone is always already doing it. Now the question becomes: how do we combine interdisciplinarity and education to make learning more relevant?

Works Cited

Brooks, David. “The Organization Kid.” Atlantic. April, 2001.

“Relevant, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 25 January 2017.