3 The evolution of interdisciplinary approaches
It can be helpful to understand the long-standing place in history that interdisciplinary studies has. Throughout history, there have been a number of well-known individuals who have applied a multi-subject approach to their work. For example, the following animation features a number of famous people throughout history who have been involved with interdisciplinary study, from Greek philosophers, Beatrix Potter (author of the well-known children’s book series about Peter Rabbit and friends) to Einstein.
Historically, some argue that the term ‘interdisciplinary’ dates right back to the ideas of Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, who have been associated with the term ‘interdisciplinary thinkers’. Others say that it is from the twentieth century, borne from educational reforms, research and the transfer of knowledge across subject boundaries.
Interdisciplinarity in the twentieth century is thought to have emerged from the social sciences and the many problems following the end of the First World War. It is argued that understanding post-war problems, such as population shifts, housing, social welfare, war, labour and crime, needed to be addressed by a range of different disciplines, rather than through the lens of just one, to work towards the ‘unity of knowledge’.
In 1959, the celebrated novelist C. P. Snow delivered an influential lecture titled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution at the University of Cambridge. Snow argued that ‘the intellectual life of the whole of western society’ was split into two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should instead build bridges to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society.
At a similar time, the mid-twentieth century saw the introduction of ‘general education’, which shaped the way interdisciplinarity is viewed today (Klein, 1990). However, in the UK, it is sometimes argued that children are required to specialise from a relatively early age. In contrast, some countries allow students to continue studying in an interdisciplinary way throughout their compulsory education. For example, schools in Finland have moved away from teaching lessons focusing on classic school subjects like mathematics or English, towards teaching these subjects in the context of broader, cross-cutting topics, such as the European Union, community and climate change.
In the following section, you will begin to explore why it can be important to apply multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary learning to a variety of topics.