A Sermon Against Academic Division/In Defense of Interdisciplinary Thought
As a humanities student I frequently find myself on the receiving end of a lecture about how academia is separated into disciplines because disciplines are naturally divided. After I swallow the invective that is my immediate response to said lecture, I inform the other person that disciplines exist not because they must but because it makes life easier for most people to think that in school they can focus on history or literature and neglect all other disciplines. It is a gross fallacy to operate in such a manner. The world that we live in is as delineated as my closet- that is, not at all.
I have always tended towards interdisciplinary thought and study. My mind’s main thought process involves an ever increasing spiral of connections. Even though I haven’t officially studied any sort of science for years (since middle school to be exact.), it remains an interest of mine. Many of my earliest memories are of spending time with my father and learning about the natural world. For someone with no real science background I can still hold my own in a conversation about ecology or biology with science majors (Question: why do I have so many friends who are science people? I find this rather strange.) I see the impact science has on art and vice versa. My major during my undergrad years was a combination of languages, literature, gender and sexuality, and the classics. The program I was in requires you to be able to explicate the connections inherent in your major and if you can’t you need to rethink your plan. There was no question, for myself nor the professors I was working with, that languages, literature, gender and sexuality, and the classics are intimately connected. Now, as I work towards an interdisciplinary graduate degree, there is no question that ceramics, literature, art history, history, and several others are all parts of a larger whole that equals my major. As I work on my thesis project, I am reading about the Japanese ideal of beauty and the difference between pre and post industrial time, amongst others. The crickets I got in the thesis class when I mentioned this were an indication of the realization that the girl covered in clay was also a serious academic and the belief that the Japanese ideal of beauty and the shift from pre to post industrial time have NOTHING to do with each other. That is incorrect. Simply put, the Japanese ideal of beauty is largely about resisting commodification and the shift from pre to post industrial time was largely about the commodification of time. See the connection? Want more? You’ll have to wait for my thesis.
When I found myself, yet again, defending interdisciplinary studies, I realized that academia often perpetuates the idea that disciplines are discrete entities. This is why I come across professors (directors of interdisciplinary programs no less) who, because they studied 18th and 19th century Britain, say they know nothing about literature or art. This sort of response still baffles and befuddles me. If you ever want a sure fire way to shut me up just say you only know about one special area of whatever discipline. Be careful though, because once I recover I am liable to say some rather intemperate things about you, to your face.
Just as art cannot be created in a vacuum, no other academic discipline can be truly understood in a vacuum. To say that you study history without studying the literature, art, economics, etc. of the time period says, to me, that you do not study history. The biggest question, even bigger than the how, is the why. Why would you want to study history but ignore the religion, economics, food, art, literature, etc. of the time? Without the art, books, laws, theories- these are all artifacts from that history- the time period you profess to study is effectively lost to us and the future. Without those things, OUR time will eventually be lost to the future inhabitants of this planet. And as we all know, those who do not (or cannot) learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Is that what we want for our descendants?
I know that I will always have to defend what I study and the way I study it. That doesn’t make me happy but it’s reality. My question is, once you have read this post can you continue to justify the artificial divisions inherent in academia? Willful ignorance is the sin that would get you into the 9th circle of my hell (along with people who believe that they are always the smartest person in the room.) Danté hated usurers and those that perpetrated violence against their guests and I hate people who insist on perpetuating their own stupidity.
One of my first memories is of a word. My father taught me to spell it and define it. The word was metamorphosis and he was teaching me about the lifecycle of butterflies. One of my favorite texts is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. These two things are separated by more time than I can say and by the disciplines they fall into- mainly biology and classical literature. Anyone with any sort of thinking ability and a bit of time could start with the two separated and quickly shift things to the point where one would realize that they are part of the admirable tradition of one part of life informing another (For the record, we’re talking about a connection between biology, religion, literature, and history.)
Ultimately, whatever you study, you are studying part of what makes up this world and this life and life is the most perfectly integrated discipline there is. For all of you would-be lecturers, consider your audience. I don’t mean don’t lecture me, I mean be prepared to be met with a well thought out, detailed, vociferous defense of something that has occupied much of my life. The latest lecturer was forced to concede that in reality, everything is interdisciplinary and those that believe otherwise are fools.