An interdisciplinary approach generally aims (1) to bridge between academic disciplines, subdisciplines or schools of thought; (2) to recruit a wide range of teachers, students, researchers, professionals and even technologies in order to gain a more complete perspective; (3) to assemble tools or approaches from multiple disciplines in order to resolve an especially challenging problem; and (4) to cross traditional academic boundaries for the purpose of improved research or teaching.
In Democracy and Education, John Dewey argues for interdisciplinary instruction: “Education should aim not at keeping science as a study of nature apart from literature as a record of human interests, but at cross-fertilizing both the natural sciences and the various human disciplines such as history, literature, economics, and politics.”
So, what are some lessons that Dewey might teach us about interdisciplinarity today? First, interdisciplinary inquiries represent opportunities for educators to become innovators, even revolutionaries, to bring many disciplinary tools to bear on crucial problems (for example, homelessness, corruption, environmental degradation, alternative energy), some that have confounded previous generations working in their own divided (and sub-divided) disciplines.
Second, interdisciplinary collaborations foster greater collegiality by cultivating more appreciation and understanding of the scholarly methods, nomenclature and literature mastered by our colleagues in different disciplines.
Third, interdisciplinary inquiries and collaborations can positively impact teaching. Student disinterest in academic subject matter could be blamed on an American culture steeped in anti-intellectualism. Still, interdisciplinary education has the potential to liberate students from this attitude of disinterest, helping them see connections between their studies in different classes and disciplines – in a sense, enlivening academic pursuits. Rather than being overly scholastic and dead to students’ interests, the methods and literature they are exposed to can become relevant and fascinating.
Fourth and last, interdisciplinary collaborations might help us to define “research” in more generic terms, in language not so narrowly tailored to any one discipline, but that invites as many scholars in as many disciplines as possible “to the table” – in other words, a definition that makes interdisciplinary teaching and research highly inclusive and collaborative endeavors.