Interdisciplinary Learning: The Need Of Our Time

How to remain professionally agile throughout your career

The challenges and opportunities of our time cannot be sliced neatly into academic subjects. Economics is being transformed by psychology; artists and musicians are expanding their creative reach into digital worlds. Public health now requires not just the field of medicine, but also data science, economics, logistics, and a sensitive understanding of local culture. Lawyers increasingly must untangle technical knots involving machine learning, blockchain, cryptocurrency, social media, and automated content. And success in almost every career requires an understanding of human behaviour and organizational politics.

Whether you want to go into a well-established profession, start a company –- or have an impact in any way -- being able to think and communicate beyond your area of expertise is an advantage. Does everyone need to be a jack of all trades? No. Regardless of your chosen field, engaging productively with people from other fields and being agile in reinventing yourself lead to fewer dead ends, more abundant opportunities, and a greater sense of fulfilment.

It is now a truism that the jobs of today will not be the jobs of tomorrow. The evidence of history shows that the future is far less predictable than our plans assume. Students and parents often make educated guesses about which courses will secure their futures, which industries will be dominant, and which realms will open up. But trends get disrupted by innovation and the cycle of renewal is accelerating. Employers need Python coders today, but Python will be superseded by new languages sooner or later. Freshly trained graduates should expect to retrain themselves two or three times during their lives. Retraining may not be as simple as learning a new computer language. Routine coding as we know it may itself become obsolete, as smart machines take over much of that. Retraining will entail learning fundamentally new ways of thinking about problems, products, and processes.

How can undergraduate education prevent graduates from becoming dinosaurs mid-career? By climbing the cognitive ladder, from specific subject-knowledge to networks of knowledge and skills that facilitate the acquisition of any new subject. School and undergraduate education should focus less on specific subjects and more on critical thinking and lucid communication. It should get students into the habit of life-long learning, constantly firing the imagination and challenging one’s presuppositions. And it should build a broad foundation of knowledge -- a foundation not just for your chosen knowledge skyscraper, but also for an entire knowledge community. Interdisciplinary learning fosters these developmental processes, making it easier to regain your footing when the sands shift under your feet.

To illustrate how interdisciplinary education cultivates resilience, consider the challenge of learning a new language in mid-life, in the midst of daily responsibilities that press on. This can be baffling if you have known only one language. But it can be less daunting if you already are familiar with two quite different languages. With multilingual early exposure, the brain acquires not just each language but also the framework for a spectrum of languages. The same is true of disciplinary knowledge. Developing divergent neural networks for a wide spectrum of knowledge – from the arts and humanities to the social sciences to the sciences – catalyzes retraining later in life and expands the range of innovative ideas when one is searching for a new path.

Traditional systems of education compel students to make irreversible choices early. Why choose between streams -- arts/humanities, science, and commerce -- from 11th grade? Concepts across these streams are beautifully intertwined in ways that spawn exponentially more innovations than are possible within one stream alone. Apple differentiated itself not because of its computer science but because of its artistic design. This is obvious today, but it wasn’t when Steve Jobs was in college. Had he not indulged in interdisciplinary learning at Reed College, he may not have taken a course (graphic design) purely out of interest -- without a thought to future application. His love for visual design and human interface combined with his obsession with personal computers to create one of the most powerful companies in history – one that changed our lives forever. Human imagination is fertile beyond bounds and should not be stifled or pigeonholed. 

Education at the school and undergraduate levels should not be limited to constructing narrow edifices of knowledge. It should also build a durable foundation upon which other edifices can be built later in life.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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