Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

The London Interdisciplinary School seeks a rigorous and rich understanding of interdisciplinarity

  • 13 November 2020
  • By Carl Gombrich

Professor Carl Gombrich, Academic Lead and Director of Teaching & Learning at the London Interdisciplinary School responds to Professor Paul Ashwin’s recent HEPI blog. You can find Carl on Twitter @carlgomb

We are grateful for Paul Ashwin’s thoughtful blog post on the new London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) and would like to offer a few reflections in response.

Firstly, we agree that there have been several previous attempts in the UK at more interdisciplinary and liberal curricula. Not just in Kingston and some of the polytechnics, but also at the universities of Keele and Sussex and, of course, when we look further afield, there are long-standing initiatives in the US, the Netherlands, Scandinavian countries and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that the number of degrees in the UK which are truly interdisciplinary across the full range of Arts and Sciences (the LIS degree contains a lot of hard science as well as the social sciences and humanities) remains almost vanishingly small in proportion to ‘single’ and ‘joint honours’ degrees. Indeed, the course I helped establish at UCL was the first ‘BASc’ (Bachelor in Arts and Sciences) in the UK – evidencing how little the higher education sector had thought it necessary to try to bridge formally, within its bureaucratic frameworks, the notions of ‘Arts’ and ‘Sciences’.

Interestingly, following the demise of the earlier 20th century attempts at interdisciplinary degrees, there is now a surge of student interest (see, for example, a recent report from Unifrog). It is worth asking why. My answer, put simply for this blog, is that the rise of the internet (both in terms of granting new features for how people learn but also in its far wider societal and cultural impact) and the greatly increased awareness of global problems have challenged academic disciplinary boundaries to a degree which was foreseen by very few 30 to 40 years ago. Students feel these changes and are questioning old structures. New social forces and opportunities call for new educational philosophies and ventures and it is likely that the earlier attempts at interdisciplinary education in the UK were not ‘wrong’ in any clear sense, but simply before their time.

When a degree has become the indispensable passport to almost every kind of career demanding high intellectual ability… it is obvious that the old-fashioned single subject honours degree designed to produce such scholars and researchers is inappropriate to the vast majority of students… [M]ost of the great discoveries and advances are being made in the borderlands between traditional disciplines as in the ‘cracking’ of the genetic code of DNA by a team of biologists, biochemists, crystallographers, electronic engineers and computer scientists, or by the application of inter-disciplinary tools, as in the radio-carbon dating of archaeological specimens or the use of statistics in historical analysis. Inside and outside the university, the graduate needs that flexibility of mind, that ability to connect the apparently unrelated, to unite hitherto disparate fields of experience, which in industry and commerce is market opportunism and in scientific or scholarly research is the inductive leap of genius.

Harold Perkin’s (1969) New Universities in the United Kingdom, as quoted in Paul Ashwin’s HEPI blog (6/11/20)

However, as Paul indicates, it is truly historic to establish an institution on entirely interdisciplinary lines. This is an immense challenge, but we think it is worth taking on. Following the recognition of the concept in the 20th century – illustrated in Perkins’ quote from Paul’s blog (above) – the word ‘interdisciplinary’ and its cognate terms has by now passed beyond buzzy and – in higher education circles at least – is almost cliché. This century many august institutions, from Nature magazine to The British Academy, have devoted time and effort to discussing the importance of interdisciplinarity and attempting to work out how to do it better. And yet the concept remains vague, underdetermined, hard to understand and rarely implemented at undergraduate level or in schools.

At LIS we believe this is unsatisfactory and seek a rigorous and rich understanding of interdisciplinarity. We want to do this for the benefit of our students – as we think an interdisciplinary curriculum will serve them best – and because we think that such a bold gesture as founding a new university requires a concomitant conceptual commitment of equal degree.

Our stance on the gains of interdisciplinary education perhaps leads us to the crux of our disagreement with Paul’s position:

the transformational power of undergraduate degrees lies in students’ gaining access to structured bodies of knowledge that transform their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world. This directly challenges the notion that the purpose of an undergraduate degree is to provide students with generic employability skills such as problem-solving.

We see far less of a dichotomy than this quote seems to imply. On the one hand, we follow, almost classically, Karl Popper’s idea that there is no greater joy than to fall in love with a problem and to spend one’s life trying to solve it. For Popper, problem solving is what it is to be human – so there is no better way to ‘transform [the] sense of who [students] are and what they can do in the world’. Far from elitist, we see this as universal in its human appeal. On the other hand, the joining of ‘purpose, meaning and employment‘ is now standard in discussions of the future of work and our curriculum, with its broad base and facilitating of student choice, will allow students to find where, after graduation, they can find agreement with their values. We are aware that there may be scepticism, even cynicism, about this connection between undergraduate learning and future work in some higher education circles, but we think this is often unfounded and warrants a longer conversation.

We are, of course, very sympathetic to Paul’s call for transformation – both of the individual and for society at large – born of a university education. We believe introducing students to radically different perspectives offered by different disciplines will offer them a unique educational path, allowing for individual interests but obliging all students to stretch themselves and encounter unfamiliarity. To take just one example, to immerse oneself in the rigours of machine learning and then spend time working with an artist on the importance of visual literacy in our age of ‘user experience’ can provide growth in the perspective-taking associated with cognitive development in the work of Robert Kegan and others. But alongside this opportunity for rich personal transformation, an interdisciplinary education also furnishes students with the hybrid skills and mindsets increasingly sought in graduate jobs.

With regard to societal transformation, LIS will try to retain a certain humility in that we wish to work with external organisations to understand their problems and concerns and use these to inform our academic problem-based curriculum. In order for our students better to understand how to transform society after graduating, we think an introduction to real-world scenarios is helpful. We acknowledge that this could be seen as not sufficiently confronting of existing inequities. However in the words of Michael Stewart, Professor of Anthropology at UCL, we seek to be a ‘porous institution’ moving society in the right direction in partnership with external stakeholders, rather than an institution standing apart from society as an external critic.

In addressing inequity more directly, our approach to admissions allows us to accept students from a wide range of educational backgrounds, not dependent on grades or educational privileges. We look forward to welcoming them in September 2021 for an experience we believe will be transformational, not just for them, but for the problems they go on to tackle after graduation.

1 comment

  1. Ian Lang says:

    Congratulations to LSI – continuous articulation of purpose and positivity will be necessary to stop people retreating into disciplinary shells. Not easy. We tried a minor version at Melbourne Uni from 2011 introducing a 25% UG cross-disciplinary breadth subject requirement, but many in externally-accredited professional boards pushed back (med, eng, MBA, etc). From a film-school interest, I hope LSI students can use contemporary digital media not only as basic tools of critical reflection, but proof of concept in communicating your premise more broadly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *