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Throwing the Book at 'Em

December 3, 2008, 09:28 AM ET

The Disciplines and Undergraduate Education

I wrote in my last post about the downside of specialization, and one of the commenters quite rightly responded that whatever the virtues of a more general orientation, generalists have a hard time finding academic employment these days.

Quite right. I am, alas, sure that the trend to subdisciplinarity will not disappear anytime soon. But the problem is even more profound. Luke Menand, one of my favorite commentators on higher education, recently gave a paper at Princeton on interdisciplinarity, a much ballyhooed style of scholarship and pedagogy these day s. Luke’s main point was that what we normally call “interdisciplinarity” is really better described as hyperdisciplinarity, since it depends utterly upon disciplinary knowledge: “It is not an escape from disciplinarity; it is the scholarly and pedagogical ratification of disciplinarity.” Or, “Interdisciplinarity is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. . . . [It] actually rigidifies disciplinary paradigms.” Luke goes further, and claims that interdisciplinarity is a symptom of anxiety about professional status (which has traditionally been created by the disciplines), an attempt to shake free of the constraints imposed by the disciplines — but it cannot go far enough to do the job.

You should read the paper yourself, for it is quite provocative. Today I simply want to use it to ask fellow academics to think harder about the relationship between their disciplinary orientation and their pedagogical responsibilities. The common criticism of undergraduate major fields (normally disciplinary) is that they are increasingly constructed of a series of narrow, highly focused courses taught by faculty who are unwilling (or unable) to teach subjects beyond their specialized research interests. I think that is too often the case. But the critique does not hit the central problem, which is how specialized knowledge (the major) contributes to the overall (liberal) education of the undergraduate student? In an era in which faculty commitment to “general education” is unsure and uncertain, the major (and hence specialization) has come to dominate undergraduate pedagogy.

This is the question that the Teagle Foundation recently put to a series of disciplinary organizations, among them the National History Center (related to the American Historical Association). Jim Grossman (Newberry Library, Chicago) and I worked with a task force of historians to think through the problem of how the History major might be reworked to contribute more directly to undergraduate liberal education. We produced a paper which, along with those of several other disciplinary groups, is now posted on the Teagle website. I think the papers are suggestive of the sorts of things disciplines might do to recover their responsibility for the broader goals of undergraduate education. We didn’t say so in our report, but among the questions I would ask each member of a disciplinary department to ask him/herself would be, “Is what I am teaching serving the liberal goals of undergraduate education? Can I do this differently and better? How can I convince my departmental colleagues to think again about our responsibilities for undergraduates?”

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