Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Disciplines and accountability 

Henry Edmondson writes of the failure that occurs in educating the college student without the benefit of a discipline, and the increase of 'interdisciplinary studies'.
Academic disciplines have a long pedigree. Some of the disciplines go back for two millennia, when Aristotle taught his class in physics, and then his class �after physics� on philosophical principles�the Metaphysics. The Trivium and the Quadrivium coalesced in the Middle Ages. The Trivium consists of logic, rhetoric and grammar; the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These are still pretty good checklists for a good education. You will occasionally find them in private schools or as the organizing scheme in home schooling curricula. The results are usually SAT scores between 1300 and 1500.

The organization of the disciplines has refined over the centuries. Although the disciplines may be criticized for too narrow a focus for the �real� world, they, in fact, provide these subject building blocks precisely to insure that students are equipped for the real world. Otherwise, it is �hit or miss.�

So, in abandoning the "disciplines" and giving students "what they really need to know" we are discarding a proven method of organization--admittedly arbitrary, imperfect, Western, "logo-centric," "traditional" etc.--in favor of a new scheme of organization that is arbitrary, unproven, and may vary according to the personalities and prejudices of those involved.

One of the movements to discard the disciplines is sometimes�ironically�what is called �interdisciplinary studies.� If one means by �interdisciplinary studies� the opportunity to approach a subject of study, say the Renaissance, by coordinating studies from history, art, music and philosophy, then such an approach is unobjectionable. ...

But something more is going on in the attempt to reorganize the curriculum. The first clue should be the habitual denigration of traditional disciplines and subject matter, which is often branded �isolated� and �self-contained.� The disciplines, it is said, have performed a �major disservice� by �dividing problems in little pieces.� Such self-serving �compartmentalization,� it is said, has exacted a heavy price on society by frustrating human progress.

Removing the disciplines, however, also removes accountability. Who is minding the store? We may not like the standards applied but at least we know whom to blame.

But how do we assess the merit of a recent interdisciplinary program "Sex and Sexuality in Contemporary Hip Hop�? Who are the experts? Howard Stern? 2Pac? And from which department is assessment made? Music? Philosophy? Dance?

Once conventional oversight is removed, mischief may arise...
As Thomas Sowell once observed, many such courses become "rap sessions" but that it depends on how it is taught. For example, he points out that one did excellent studies of black Americans, but as a historian or a sociologist or an economist. Lucky for most of us, the rap session artists put their syllabi on line; one must judge the weight and seriousness of the reading list before knowing whether or not the course has real intellectual content.
The point of all this is that the label "interdisciplinary" covers such a wide range of possibilities as to be almost meaningless. Where it is literally true-where the intellectual principles of two or more fields are used in combination-there are likely to be very difficult and demanding courses, like physical chemistry or econometrics. But the term is seldom used in this sense by those advocating "interdisciplinary" studies. All too often, so-called "interdisciplinary" courses and programs represent an abandonment of any discipline, substituting enthusiasm for some subject or for some ideologically preconceived conclusions about that subject. It is these kinds of "interdisciplinary" courses which lend themselves to becoming rap sessions among the true believers. A third possibility-a program which simply includes courses drawn from a variety of specific disciplines-can more readily escape this fate, but that program does not itself constitute a discipline, and a degree in such a program would indicate little or nothing about the student's mastery of some intellectual process.