The Thing I Don’t Like About Interdisciplinary Education

Having just finished reading a chapter on transfer from Intelligent Music Teaching (buy it, you won’t regret it), I’m reminded of the main reason why I so often have such a visceral negative reaction to any attempt to introduce “more interdisciplinary work” into any school’s curriculum. To quote Dr. Duke:

Around the turn of the previous century, psychologists began to test empirically whether learned knowledge and skills do in fact transfer beyond the contexts in which they are taught, and the results were unequivocally disappointing. Knowledge and skills were much more context-bound than the original theory of mental faculties had predicted.

This, in my mind, points to the fundamental problem with the (not-so-recent) vogue of interdisciplinary curricula: namely, that students’ days are rigidly divided into periods in which they enter brand new classrooms, in which they are taught different subjects by different teachers, mixed in with different students–or, in other words, placed in extremely different contexts–and are expected to be filled with a sense of wonder and awe because it so happens that The American Revolution is discussed in both?

To put it simply, I’m highly skeptical that whatever ideas are introduced in History class will transfer over into English or Math.

This isn’t to say, now, that those who advocate interdisciplinary don’t have a point. I would heartily agree with anyone who argued that the traditional academic disciplines taught separately in schools are arbitrary and artificial divisions of what we humans broadly might call “knowledge.” I would agree with anyone who says that in “the real world”–which really just means the world outside school, which I guess is merely meant to be a long series of simulations–there are no such disciplinary divisions. One may be called on to solve a problem that requires use of a wide range of different skills, that might be encountered in any and all academic disciplines. This is, I suppose, the reason why anyone gets a liberal arts degree.

All of these are excellent arguments in favor of offering students interdisciplinary curricula. Unfortunately, when it comes to the real world of the American High School, there are some real problems.

I’ve alluded to the central issue above, of course–transfer. In the typical American High School (and the one I work at is no exception), the walls between the various disciplines are so rigidly impermeable that any interdisciplinary work crammed into that schedule seems totally artificial. We’re still going to English class, right, which exists as a discrete unit separate and distinct from History class. So why would any of us teachers expect that a concept that shows up in these two rigidly separate locations have any lasting relevance to our students?

If the goals of any interdisciplinary curriculum are actually more important than the aggregate of the goals of each individual subject–an assertion that I’m somewhat skeptical of, but am willing to go along with–then accomplishing those goals effectively would require removing these walls, or at least making them more permeable. Instead of giving students a schedule which says “History – 1st Period” and “English – 2nd period”, we ought to combine the two into one class called “Humanities” and have it team-taught by a pair of teachers with equal expertise in Literature and History. The focus of the course could be on teaching literature in a historical context, and providing students on a daily basis with the kinds of rich, multifaceted connections that every advocate of interdisciplinary curriculum claims.

Short of this radical re-thinking of the High School curriculum, I can’t see how any interdisciplinary projects are anything other than lip service paid to the noble goals of an interdisciplinary curriculum. If the boundaries between subjects truly are arbitrary, and don’t offer students the opportunity to form deep and enduring connections between the ideas presented by their disparate teachers, then remove the boundaries entirely. Without that step taken, what are you really accomplishing?

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