The Interdisciplinary Manifesto
An "author's note"!
The postmodern moment is over. But what comes after is probably messier.
We find ourselves at a precipice. The world is interconnected – more so than what we could have ever imagined merely a decade ago. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that we could keep many things running from the comfort of our homes, despite being thousands of miles apart.
Yet, there is little doubt that polarization and isolation are the afflictions of the day. From unstable politics and civil unrest in many communities around the world to the loss of social capital and increasing suicide rates among youth, some part of our humanity seems to be in recession. Our increased interconnectivity and accelerated technological developments have also enabled white-collar crimes and computer fraud on an unprecedented scale. We navigate these precarious times with immense trepidation, not knowing whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the final breath of antediluvian chaos, or a herald of more tragedy to come.
Some say that the ideal classroom is a microcosm of the world. If that is the case, then the classroom as it is now is an anachronism. Just as we have brought down the myth that “left-brain-right-brain” dominance has anything to do with talents or character, we are now compelled to demolish the blemished walls between fields of knowledge - the arts and the sciences; ethics and technology; creativity and logic. An increasingly complex world requires similarly complex solutions. These solutions must come from flexible, adaptable, and agile ways of thinking, and unfettered, equitable, and effective forms of collaboration.
The way we have approached the custodianship of knowledge needs to make a decisive turn. In this respect, I cannot help but give kudos to the many efforts and steps taken by forward-thinking institutions and educators in recent years to promote an increasingly multi-disciplinary and versatile approach to foundational and advanced education. These commendable first steps include the ongoing efforts at the National University of Singapore to combine her arts and science faculties, the Arts, Science + Culture Initiative at the University of Chicago, among many others. (There are many out there, and I apologize for not mentioning more. My bias towards my almae matres is plain.)
Now, let us turn to the miniature elephants in the room. Interdisciplinarity is not a new concept. However, it has grown to become extremely relevant for our current times, and concurrently, stakeholders invested in the idea have only just begun to think more clearly on how an effective interdisciplinary education should look like, and what being interdisciplinary really means.
The road is not a smoothly paved one. We need only look to cultural norms - which I have experienced growing up in my own hometown - to observe examples of forces over the past decades that discourage flexible thinking. You may be surprised to hear that as a high school student, I helped found one of the first pre-university level student law societies in Singapore that provided internship opportunities, alongside my brilliant schoolmates and longtime friends Jesulyn Lim and Julian Neo. However, my involvement and interest in the legal field stemmed mostly from the desire to spend time with friends who were interested in the subject, and what the cultural norms of the circles I was in reinforced: that everyone aspires to Law or Medicine, and that these were the only careers worth aspiring to. Even I was not immune at the time to thinking: “Well, if I’m not sure what to do in the future, I’ll just choose Law because everyone seems to believe that it’s a good and prestigious choice.” Interestingly enough, my time spent managing the law society and the additional time I had to think during National Service made me realize that a career in law was not something I wanted.
Of course, this is not to discount the many who are genuinely passionate about and dedicated to the subject or a legal career. My own sister is a terrific lawyer who has forged a place for herself in the field. I only use Law as an example, because it is representative of how educational and societal culture and structure can serve to pigeonhole youth into inflexible paths.
Such forces and pressures extend all the way up the academic ladder. In academic circles, there is often advice about how interdisciplinary degrees and diplomas (e.g. PhD in Informatics, Media Studies) are less desirable then their more “traditional” counterparts (e.g. Sociology, Psychology, Physics). There is practical merit in this advice in that the latter degrees are indeed associated with better prospects - but the fact that the advice has practical merit says a lot more about the academic market and how interdisciplinary programs are structured than it says about the value of being interdisciplinary. There is no shortage of irony in the tension between academia’s tatemae1 mission of pushing the boundaries of knowledge and the politics inherent in academia that discourage divergent thinking.
Interdisciplinarity is a necessary concept, not just another whimsical term to be added to the bureaucracy of the academy. An interdisciplinary curriculum does not mean sacrificing depth for breadth, nor does it mean sacrificing expertise in one field for a “broad-based education”. In my book, that is an incomplete and flawed formulation. One should not view the idea of being interdisciplinary as a frantic attempt to be in many places at once or to aimlessly consume bits of everything from everywhere - but rather as the capacity to embrace more than a single area of expertise, the capability to integrate knowledge across them, and the flexibility to reach out beyond one’s specialization to enrich one’s own passions and pursuits. To be interdisciplinary is to embody humility; the humility to learn from others and to reach across normative boundaries that have nothing to do with the value of knowledge (such as whether one discipline, career, or skill is “more prestigious” than another). Cultivating this takes hard work, and an environment that encourages it.
No, it is not about “knowing everything”. But adage be damned, who is to say that one cannot be a jack of many trades, and still a master of some? That is the true and pragmatic rebellion against chaos, and our world demands it.
Also, if for no other reason than it is fun!
Thank you for reading! I am passionate and committed to writing about arts, science, society, and interdisciplinarity. If you like what you see, subscribe below to be notified of new posts and support my work.