Then, this week, the topic came up with one of my students while we were discussing her college list. One of the schools she had researched talked in-depth about their commitment to providing an interdisciplinary learning experience. When I asked her what she thought about that, she replied that she didn’t really know what that phrase meant.
I often take for granted that my students know what colleges mean by majors and minors, concentrations, and core curriculum requirements. But for many students, they have had little to no choice in their class schedule throughout school, maybe selecting the honors version of their English class rather than the regular version. So the idea that, in college, they will get to choose from dozens of different courses to fulfill their writing requirement or their quantitative reasoning requirement is unimaginable. Because of that, I like to take a step back and walk my students through these topics, so they can better envision how they’ll get to shape their education for the next four years.
And that’s exactly what my student and I did, discussing the concept of interdisciplinary learning, or how you can look at a single topic through many different lenses, from the vantage of many different disciplines. For instance, studying Classics is itself an interdisciplinary process. Classics focuses on the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, looking at their histories, religions, philosophies, and literature. Many Classics students focus on the archaeological angle, participating in digs to discover artifacts that help us understand how people lived at that time. As a lover of literature, I primarily spent my time studying Ancient Greek drama and reading Roman philosophers, thinking about how they overlapped with what I was learning in my Shakespeare and art history classes.
I shared with my student this new fact I had learned about Dr. Fauci, and we chatted about how his Classics background might have prepared him to be a doctor beyond his scientific and medical training. We talked about how managing this crisis itself requires an interdisciplinary approach, from studying the science of how the virus works to understanding supply chains and manufacturing of personal protective equipment to considering the psychological impact of millions of people isolating themselves at home. And as we talked, my student could see the educational and real-life benefits of interdisciplinary learning.
Interdisciplinary learning can take the form of a structured course in college, like studying environmentalism while reading Thoreau’s Walden. But once you learn this approach, you start to see it everywhere, in your high school classes and in your everyday life. And if this way of thinking, of looking at the world appeals to you, you might want to seek out colleges that will help you develop this perspective.