Since home for me is DC, it’s very convenient to take the train back and forth over breaks, and I end up taking about 6-8 train rides a year. On every single train ride that I take (with the exception of Christmas), I intend to do work of some kind. And every single time, I end up talking to the person next to me. Today, I decided to go on the quiet car in order to read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. I ended up, of course, whispering with a fellow passenger for two hours.

As it turned out, this woman had gone to UVA undergrad as an Echols scholar, which I would have done had I not chosen Penn. She majored in “Political and Social Thought” and Women’s Studies. While she could have done PST outside of Echols, that major only admits 20 people a year and, in any case, exemplifies the spirit of the program. It’s basically PPE, but it lets you pick any three majors if you can justify the combination. (Penn has an equivalent program, which is likewise limited to top students) She used Anthropology, Psychology, and (I believe) Political Science to look at how institutions can marginalize groups such as women, races, religions, sexualities, etc. We ended up having a broader conversation about morality, government, careers, TV shows, and all the other classic wide-ranging-conversation topics, but her course of study really interested me, and connected with my thoughts on the subject going back several months.

“Interdisciplinary” is a popular word – and for a very good reason. It’s become clear that you cannot study a particular issue from within the confines of one discipline if you hope to make a comprehensive statement on it. And in life we tend to study issues, not disciplines. History is useful because we want to know how we got here, but non-academics (and most academics, for that matter) use the approach to describe the history of a particular thing or idea, in order to help them understand and deal with that thing.

Right now, for example, I’m taking a class on corruption. Our first reading was a history of bribery, but the second was an economic analysis of corruption, and the third was by a political scientist. Later on, we’ll read some anthropology. In the real world, a businessman hoping to build, say, an oil pipeline would want to know – or should want to know – the local conditions, which will be economic, cultural, political, and historical. I’ll assume that the businessman will need to be familiar with some of the technical aspects of the oil industry, but that’s not particularly in-depth. The technical people, on the other hand, will have to know civil engineering, chemistry, geology, etc. The hard sciences analogy may be less apt, since you can (and in many cases need to) have different people do different things. But in the humanities and social sciences, integration of the disciplines is absolutely essential.

So should we scrap the majors? In this fine example of apple pie flung heavenward, one man asserts that we should. But to be interdisciplinary, you have to start with disciplines. You have to recognize that the psychological level of analysis differs from the sociological level, and that law differs from philosophy differs from economics. Our model of interdisciplinary research has been that people of different academic backgrounds and approaches should work together. To the extent that individual writers combine different approaches, they currently tend to be journalists rather than experts. Should there be a new class of intermediary – one that is trained in multiple fields, and that disseminates knowledge to experts as well as to the general public?

Penn has an interdisciplinary requirement in the General Curriculum. But I question its relevance, and I tend to think that the basic requirements as they stand impede, rather than enhance, the kind of interdisciplinary thinking I’ve just outlined. For one thing, to be competent in multiple fields requires you to take more courses, and the more requirements there are in a curriculum, the more things like minors and double majors get cut out. So I’d say that specific, take-a-class-that-fulfills-this requirements should be trimmed down quite a bit. To half the current number or less, say. In their stead, we should make multi-course requirements. Write, for example, a mini-thesis that touches on all of your classes one semester. Specific majors could have interdisciplinary requirements; so history, for example, might require a poli-sci class or two, or Econ, or whatever.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask that everyone cover so much ground in four or five years, and to that extent I’d like to see high schools try to teach some social sciences in a serious way. I say that with a straight face because there are excellent high schools out there, including excellent public high schools, and I know it’s possible for some even if it isn’t for all. And many do offer Psych and Econ as subjects. But high schools notwithstanding, we could definitely rethink the way we try to encourage generalized study. No doubt we’re already doing that, but the curriculum at Penn has seen more individual course slots added, rather than different kinds of requirements, in the last decade. Within the humanities and social sciences at least, the majors rather than the general curriculum should direct students’ interdisciplinary studies, and serious interdisciplinary study should be encouraged for all students rather than just the top few.

Edit: A post taking the other side in the context of law school (Hat Tip: Steve Menashi at TAS). Tamanaha draws a distinction between the theory and the practice of law, suggesting that interdisciplinary knowledge and thinking are really only necessary at the top, top level of lawyering and for academics. I’d say that distinction doesn’t hold up as well in the world of liberal education, but the arguments still apply.