Caleb’s Corner: The deceptive, market-driven meaning of “interdisciplinary”

Editor in Chief

Caleb Headshot Xander Opiyo/THE REVIEW
Editor in Chief Caleb Owens.

It is 5:15 a.m. on Monday and my column, yet unwritten, is far past its deadline. Short on ideas, I am looking at the some 90 books stacked along my wall and wondering if my having read them makes me “interdisciplinary.”

The representation is diverse. Anatomy and physiology and primatology textbooks lay at the base of one stack, and, in ascending order of no intentional significance, such names as Melville, Hitchens, King Jr., Hume and Foster Wallace appear, interspersed among several other obscure and deteriorating books, one of which details the history of the Gregorian Chant. There’s even a Bible (two, actually, one with apocrypha and one without), coexisting peacefully in the same stack as a Koran.

Assuming that I have, in fact, read these books, and don’t just own them for the purpose of pretentious interior decoration (as is the trend today — David Foster Wallace, in particular, often finds himself unread on college students’ desks), I think it’s appropriate to say that my intellectual exposure is “interdisciplinary.”

But this would construe “interdisciplinary” in a far too literal sense. As any good undergraduate ought to know, intentional and useful exposure to multiple disciplines is only half of the definition. That is, something is not truly interdisciplinary unless it is formally recognized as such, unless its interdisciplinary-ness can be demonstrated on a resume.

So, let us pretend for a moment that I don’t suffer from crippling indecision, and that I don’t have multiple majors and minors declared. Let’s pretend that I’m simply a history major, but that I’ve still read all of the books stacked on my floor, and that I’ve still taken my share of math and science courses. This might as well be true.

Even if it is, I am not interdisciplinary.

Get the logic? There has been no relevant change in what I have actually learned, what I actually know. But there has been a change in what my credentials say I know, and again, as any good undergraduate ought to understand, if my resume cannot provide explicit proof that I am familiar with a certain discipline, then I am not familiar with that discipline.

And, if my credentials say that I only know history, then according to the market I know nothing. I cannot and do not know anything about science, writing or economics, or anything else. Due to our obsession with titles and names over facts, this must be the case. Ergo, I am not interdisciplinary.

This logic, flawed it may be, is the driving force behind the most dramatic changes in higher education. Here at the university, making things “interdisciplinary” is among the most cited justifications for otherwise useless and wasteful projects, tinkering with names while offering no substantive improvements.

The addition of a graduate college — an apparently “necessary” addition, as the administration has consistently argued, although the actual necessity of it continues to elude me — is supposed to make graduate education more “interdisciplinary.” The ongoing cluster hiring, an “interdisciplinary” recruitment process designed to attract more “interdisciplinary” faculty, works the same way.

These projects remain in their infancy, but for a hint at what’s to come, we can look to a regional campus of the University of Wisconsin, UW-Stevens Point. Recently, the school decided to eliminate its history department. It did so at the expense of four history faculty members. The others were retained and relocated to “career-focused” and “interdisciplinary” programs, which are nominally (and the name, remember, is what’s important) related to science and technology.

At a regional campus, where the vocational emphasis on an education is probably stronger than it is here, this seems like a pragmatic compromise. Students with history degrees from the school, like those from other schools, struggle to find employment. So, find a way to preserve some sliver of an education’s liberal arts core while demolishing your economically useless humanities departments. Under some sexy, “interdisciplinary” new degree program, the humanities will survive (at least for now), finding ways to make an otherwise shallow and narrow STEM education appear complete and conform to the “interdisciplinary” desires of the market.

Wisconsin, in this regard, offers insight into what “interdisciplinary” means. The word, literally suggesting the intersection and collaboration of discrete, recognized, autonomous disciplines, means instead the amalgamation of disciplines into market-savvy programs and titles. It involves the dissolution of humanities departments, the relevant portions of which are selectively reintegrated into science and technology programs, always subordinate in the service of the STEM.

The fact that history departments are, apparently, the first to go highlights how ridiculous this trend is. History, a discipline that can and must be interdisciplinary — nothing, especially not science or technology, escapes history — is seen as devoid of value, too narrow in scope. If I am a history major — if I declare the single most interdisciplinary of majors — I am not interdisciplinary. (If, however, I am a biology major and a history minor, I am now interdisciplinary. Medical schools will love me, so the thinking goes.) The same may be said of pretty much every other humanities field.

Nevermind the actual content of what a given discipline offers. It’s all about the name, that which appears on a resume, that which can make itself profitable. The “interdisciplinary” developments at this university and others are the early steps toward marginalizing and eventually crushing the annoying humanities departments, those that are too “outdated” and aren’t “preparing students for the workforce.”

Now doubting my interdisciplinary-ness, I look back to my stacks and see several “histories” written by scientists, who will, in 20 or so years, be the closest things to historians that we have. (Next time you go to Barnes and Noble, notice that all of the humanities-oriented bestsellers are written by MDs and neuroscientists, those whom we endow with authority.)

I think about how bad those books were, how deficient even the best were in literary and historical value (I look in particular to “The Gene,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee) and, shifting back to the Bible and Koran, I pray in vain that humanity’s decline into technocratic semi-literacy will at least be a swift and painless one.

Till next semester. Happy Holidays.

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