Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Using Iceland as a Model for Interdisciplinary Honors Study

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Using Iceland as a Model for Interdisciplinary Honors Study

Article excerpt


Interdisciplinarity is a well-established educational approach that speaks directly to our understanding of what knowledge is and, more specifically, what practical knowledge is. Despite its long history, the concept of interdisciplinarity continues to raise essential questions: whether knowledge is anchored in particular fields of investigation separate in nature or can be found in a breaching of disciplines, across fields of investigation; how we might attain such cross-reference; and whether it is even possible to achieve a synthetic, interdisciplinary understanding or if knowledge is invariably anchored in separate disciplines occasionally informing each other. The term has not just epistemological value but practical interest for educational systems that aim to achieve educational value through interdisciplinary studies.

Since Plato's and, to a lesser degree, Aristotle's invocation of the philosopher as the synthesizing procurer of all knowledge, a variety of thinkers have pursued the notion of knowledge as a holistic state of mind. For example, Hegel's nineteenth-century ideal of "absolute spirit" is probably the most significant vision of a unified consciousness, but, long before Hegel, the concept of the Renaissance man, or "Uomo universale," set the stage for an educational ideal that became central to Western educational systems, not least in general education and honors programs At the same time, the opposite of this ideal is evident in the many disciplines to which school children are exposed in elementary and high school systems, where the ideal is for the student to become a whole person at the end but by taking a set of rather dissociated, kaleidoscopic paths to get there

In modern times, the ideal of interdisciplinarity has become contentious. Julie Klein expresses it well in terms of higher education:

   As the modern university took shape, disciplinarity was reinforced
   in two major ways: industries demanded and received specialists,
   and disciplines recruited students to their ranks. The trend
   towards specialization was further propelled by increasingly more
   expensive and sophisticated instrumentation within individual
   fields. (...) Although the "Renaissance Man" may have remained an
   ideal for the well-educated baccalaureate, it was not the model for
   the new professional, specialized research scholar. (21)

In educational systems, the notion of "real-world significance" (Repko, et al., 2013) is paramount to our educational enterprise from first grade onwards, pedagogically tuned to the different stages of ability Students must obtain an education that prepares them well for real life in addition to attaining the technical particulars of their chosen discipline as they complete their undergraduate education. The holistic enterprise has here been reduced to the general education mission of adding breadth to education, typically in a series of general education requirements that elicit limited enthusiasm from students who are focused on their major. In a sense, the ideal is interdisciplinarity while the method is, in effect, a cementation of disciplinarity

Let there be no doubt about the relevance of disciplines for K-12 and higher education, yet we undoubtedly experience some "nostalgia for lost wholeness" (Klein 12) if ever there were such a thing. More than nostalgia, the need for experiencing a sense of wholeness seems to be a fundamental human condition that consequently ought to be cultivated in education as a response to inevitable existential questioning along with attainment of a specialized trade. Perhaps we are now finding ourselves in a situation where the spectrum of academic fields and their specialized knowledge has become so dominant, so efficient, that we must look to interdisciplinary studies with renewed interest in order to reestablish something lost Interdisciplinary approaches do not merely satisfy an abstract longing; in post-educational life--especially in our secular, Western, post-modern culture--young people must confront complex issues that transcend any one discipline. …

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