Multidisciplinary study: the value and benefits
Multidisciplinary study: the value and benefits

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Multidisciplinary study: the value and benefits

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.

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Plato was a famous philosopher in classical Greece and founder of the first institution for higher learning in the Western world. He laid the foundations for Western philosophy, science, and maths, along with being one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality, a very early adopter of interdisciplinary studies.
His student Aristotle was also a philosopher and scientist. His writings cover many areas, including physics, biology, zoology, poetry, theatre, music, psychology, and politics and government.
Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni, a Persian polymath regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the mediaeval Islamic era, and was well versed in physics, mathematics, astronomy, and a natural scientist, and also distinguished himself as a historian, chronologist, and linguist.
Leonardo da Vinci, regarded by many historians and scholars as a universal genius. His areas of interest spanned a wide range of subjects, from invention, painting, and sculpting, to architecture, science, music, mathematics, and engineering. The list goes on.
Beatrix Potter's inspiration was drawn from a range of different disciplines, from recording observable data, art, and she was a student of natural history from a young age. She was also interested in geology, archaeology, entomology, and mycology. "What was rare was how Potter used her gifts in diverse areas, from stories for children and animal husbandry to the preservation of land, farms, and watersheds in the English Lake District," Lear, 2007.
Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist from the 20th century, was a theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1921 for his work contributing to the evolution of quantum theory. He wrote over 150 scientific works, including writing about socialism. Einstein was also a lover of music and a keen violinist.
And now, you.
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Interdisciplinarity through history
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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.


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