The Interdisciplinary Future of the Humanities
Like some of the previous articles have discussed, the Humanities have gradually lost their “shine”, appeal and acclaim, a process that has been undoubtedly aided by the persistent and continuous cuts in funding and investments, which have long since been diverted into other fields. Despite this, every year high school graduates still demonstrate an interest in the Humanities, defyingly choosing to pursue a degree and career in that field, regardless of the stigma and stereotypes connected to that path. However, it appears that students, institutions and employers have grown increasingly more concerned with the appropriacy of the Humanities in a modern society, one primarily based on technology. As a result, students have become more involved in extracurricular activities which provide them with transferable skills, unrelated to their degree but suitable for a work environment.
Additionally — and here we come to the focus of the article — more and more institutions of higher learning have started to introduce several interdisciplinary modules and joint degree courses with the aim of “bringing the Humanities in the 21st century” and connecting them to different fields of study, especially the hard sciences.
The Interdisciplinary Approach
The concept of interdisciplinary work in Higher Learning and, more specifically, in the Humanities isn’t altogether new and has, in fact, been a part of the discourse surrounding education for decades. Countless scholars have praised the practice at length, describing it as the only path through which a pupil might gain a broader and less restrictive understanding of not only one subject, but also how that subject interacts with other fields.
W. James Jacob — echoing the claims made by Gregor Slavicek — aptly describes the interdisciplinary approach in his paper Interdisciplinary Trends in Higher Education
Higher education disciplinary approaches often tend to focus only on a set of trees within a great forest. While disciplinary experts are essential for understanding particular ways of knowing within specific fields of study, their perspectives in addressing larger and more complex issues is often limited. ID approaches take a much broader view of the entire landscape, first by surveying the forest and afterwards drawing upon various tree experts depending on the needs, contexts and circumstances.James Jacob, Interdisciplinary Trends in Higher Education, Palgrave Communications, 2015.
Walter Kaufmann similarly discussed the topic at length in his monograph The Future of the Humanities, going as far as defining what was to come as the «Interdisciplinary Age» (1977, 184). Although written in 1977, the text and the author’s views still ring true, with many critics and scholars still arguing in favour of the implementation of more interdisciplinary opportunities and research.
Some institutions, like The London Interdisciplinary School and the Interdisciplinary Studies Centre at the University of Essex, have even been born from that need to innovate and modernise. But is this only a new branch of the Humanities, or is it, instead, the first step towards a radical change, one which will see the majority of the disciplines abandon their individuality and embrace more interactions between subjects?
Interdisciplinary modules in practice
Newcastle University is one among many institutions participating in this change, providing its students with a variety of opportunities for interdisciplinary development. Most notable among them is the Interdisciplinary Philosophy Project. Despite being more known to philosophy students, the self-led project runs year long for undergraduates at all three stages of their degree, with students being encouraged to select a specific philosophical area and approach it in conjunction with a separate subject or field of their choosing. During the year they are taught to construct complex research projects and interact with different fields, some of which have very little in common with philosophy, and while the project is part of the philosophy student’s curriculum, collaboration with students taking part in other degrees is advised and commended. Through the project, students are able to interact with several different research techniques, sources and codes of practice, ultimately attempting to connect them back to philosophy.
However challenging the process may be, the results continue to be stellar, with both students and staff praising the project and the transferable skills that are acquired during its completion. Similarly, several other Schools and Faculties in several Universities have introduced semester-long cross-disciplinary modules, specifically targeted to highlight the connections between different areas of study, most notably focusing on the possible associations between the humanities and the medical and technological fields. These ultimately aim to provide students with a broader and more diverse range of knowledge, which would include theories, research methods, and models from across both arts and sciences.
Interdisciplinary modules or Interdisciplinary Universities?
But is this enough? With more and more students choosing to abandon the Humanities when pursuing a second degree or a Master, are the interdisciplinary modules which have already been introduced sufficient to satisfy the ever-growing needs of the modern world? Zahir Irani, writing on the subject, chose to focus on university structure, specifically considering the way in which the consistent and long-lasting establishment of departments might be hindering the institution’s evolution, and holding them responsible for prioritising structure over cooperation. He proposes instead that rather than focusing on providing interdisciplinary modules, universities should undergo a complete structural change: one that would see the establishment of a cross-disciplinary institution focused on the interaction between several different fields. Like previously mentioned, some institutions have already developed separate departments entirely dedicated to running and providing joint degrees and interdisciplinary studies, but the divide between existing faculties continues to persist, potentially inhibiting the cross-fertilisation between different educational fields, aided by what Slavicek defines as the comprehensive and divisive mode of thought typical of human beings.
While it may appear obvious to some people that the future of the Humanities relies on the potential for interdisciplinary development, the extent of that development and the shapes it might take are still undefined. Should the modules change? Should more interdisciplinary projects be created? Or should the Universities and institutions themselves break down the current boundaries between fields and create a new interdisciplinary model? Perhaps a mix of the two systems would be appropriate, with both dedicated faculties and independent courses aimed at providing students with different types of interdisciplinary learning opportunities, tailored not only to the fields that are connected but to the students individual needs.
To learn more
- Irani, Zahir (2018). “The university of the future will be interdisciplinary. Traditional departmental structures are preventing research and education from evolving. It’s time for something new”. The Guardian, 24 January. URL https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/jan/24/the-university-of-the-future-will-be-interdisciplinary 2020/07/10.
- Jacob, James (2015). “Interdisciplinary Trends in Higher Education”. Palgrave Communications, 1(15001). DOI https://doi.org/10.1057/palcomms.2015.1https://doi.org/10.1057/palcomms.2015.1 2020/07/10.
- Kaufmann, Walter (1977). The Future of the Humanities. Teaching Art, Religion, Philosophy, Literature, and History. New York: Transaction Publishers.
- Slavicek, Gregor (2012). “Interdisciplinary – A Historical Reflection”. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 2(20), 107-113. URL http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_2_No_20_Special_Issue_October_2012/10.pdf 2020/07/10.