A New Approach to Interdisciplinary Education

James Genone
February 15, 2021

In the past several decades, interdisciplinary research that integrates approaches from diverse specialized fields has produced significant advances in human knowledge, and has spawned multiple areas of sustained collaboration in areas such as ecology, cognitive science, and behavioral economics. Yet despite this flourishing of investigation across domains, pervasive barriers to the growth of interdisciplinary work remain, particularly in the form of entrenched departmental divisions and incentives for research faculty to pursue funding and publication opportunities within the silo of a single academic discipline. To add to these challenges — and perhaps because of them — interdisciplinarity has yet to have the kind of influence on undergraduate education that might help to spur its wider adoption and continued development. To make matters worse, many so-called “interdisciplinary” programs are little more than combinations of various disciplinary courses.

Interdisciplinarity Goes Far Beyond Juxtaposition

Since its inception, Minerva has taken a unique approach to interdisciplinary education, one that places the transfer of knowledge across domains among our highest goals for student learning. Our focus has been to create educational programs from the ground up that are driven by this commitment. True interdisciplinarity involves deep, cross-contextual application of concepts, theoretical frameworks, and methodologies drawn from multiple fields. It is not simply the juxtaposition of different perspectives on a common problem, but rather their synthesis, such that an approach originating in one area yields new insight when applied beyond disciplinary boundaries. While it may be useful to learn about political, economic, scientific, and ethical considerations related to societal views of climate change, exposure to these different perspectives will not by itself allow us to form a coherent overall view of the matter. Our understanding is transformed when we bring cross-cutting insights to bear, for example by applying findings from psychology about how biases rooted deep in human cognition influence our judgments about each dimension of the subject, and this integrated perspective can in turn help us to devise novel approaches to educating our fellow citizens.

These boundaries, introduced early in most educational systems, are strongly cemented by the options commonly available for undergraduate majors. Interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree programs are rare at most colleges and universities. Where such programs do exist, a quick scan of course catalogs reveals a surprising fact: interdisciplinary programs are not actually very interdisciplinary. Among the course offerings, only a small handful synthesize knowledge from diverse domains, with the remaining courses being identical to those offered in siloed degree programs.

The impulse to constrain academic study within the borders of departmental divisions is nowhere more pervasive than within general education. The very concept of general education is to impart skills and knowledge that can be applied across domains. Yet the most common form of general education in the United States is the “distribution requirement,” according to which students choose from dozens of courses offered by various departments. By completing one such course, students are then deemed to have gained adequate exposure to a broad area of study. A single biology or physics course counts as having studied “science”; a history course on its own is sufficient for “humanities”.

Implementing Interdisciplinary Learning

Minerva’s approach to interdisciplinary education is a complete departure from this common practice. It has two critical characteristics, which have a profound effect on the way students prepare for their academic and professional futures.

1. The first characteristic is that interdisciplinarity is foundational. This means that students are exposed to broadly applicable skills and concepts at the beginning of their course of study, in a way that prepares them to put this knowledge into practice throughout the rest of their education. In our approach to general education, courses do not belong to a single department, but instead span multiple fields, which not only teaches students to apply a diversity of methods and frameworks, but also prepares them to make informed choices about their educational and professional paths.

For instance, one of our foundational courses is Complex Systems, which begins with the study of complexity theory — drawing on concepts from fields such as biology, philosophy, and computer science — followed by the application of these concepts to problems from psychology, economics, ethics, political science, and leadership theory. After being introduced to the concept of networks, for example, students examine how networks can explain the collective behavior of protestors at a demonstration, or the way consumption decisions made by individuals can influence whether the societal distribution of goods is fair. Once familiar with the concepts and frameworks covered in the course, students are then frequently prompted to apply what they have learned throughout their program of study.

2. This leads to the second key characteristic of Minerva’s approach: interdisciplinarity is systematic. Our programs continually reinforce the application of concepts and skills across contexts in an intentional and structured fashion, so that students develop the habit of utilizing knowledge from a variety of different fields as they pursue the courses required to complete their degree programs — a habit that will serve them far beyond their undergraduate studies. To continue with the example above, the concept of networks is relevant for students studying biological systems, data science, or marketing, to name just a few. Once introduced to the idea of networks, students are expected to apply the concept appropriately when taking subsequent courses on any of these topics. This reinforcement is accompanied by assessment of their performance and progress, so that we can measure the growth of a student’s mastery over time, as well as the extent to which they are able to transfer their knowledge successfully across contexts and domains. This means that every Minerva program is inherently interdisciplinary, involving the systematic integration of foundational, broadly applicable concepts and methods from across disciplines.

By making interdisciplinarity a central pillar of our educational approach, Minerva ensures that students come away not just with the idea that frameworks and techniques from distinct fields can be combined and applied in new ways, but with years of concrete experience actually doing so. This model significantly increases the integration and coherence of their educational experience, and prepares them to contribute to their chosen pursuits with an uncommon degree of proficiency, creativity, and insight.

James Genone is the Managing Director of Higher Education Innovation at Minerva Project.

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