Five years ago or so, I was one of a small handful of faculty invited to a luncheon meeting hosted by Charles Taylor and James Tully, both then still members of McGill's Department of Political Science. The intent was to explore the possibility of launching either a Ph.D. program in Social and Political Thought or a Social and Political Thought cross-disciplinary option within the existing disciplinary Ph.D. programs. While there was great enthusiasm for the initiative, there were no encouraging words about the prospects of gaining any support from the various social science departments. The dream died before we rose from the table.
At the undergraduate level there are numerous interdisciplinary programs at McGill. I myself had a hand in the creation of the programs in Latin American Studies and Environmental Studies in the 1970s and International Development Studies in the 1990s. While these programs are increasingly popular with the students, most programs are starved for funds, depend on volunteer labor and may not even have signing authority over a budget. The most notable exception to this pattern is environmental studies where we have a school, the McGill School of the Environment created in 1998, and a full time director.
A curriculum reform in the McGill Faculty of Arts which came into effect in September 1998 went as far as giving most students an extra margin of flexibility by reducing the number of credits in a major from 54 to 36 credits. There was at one point some talk of creating especially designed interdisciplinary ("distribution") courses to be team taught by distinguished members of the faculty, but only existing courses were rounded up to fill the place where the showcase courses were intended to fit into the program. The distribution course proposal in its actual form, rather than the idealized model, was eventually abandoned.
Our reform went as far as reducing
the number of credits in major and minor programs (now referred to as "concentrations"),
but no further. Not a word was heard either about pedagogical approaches
or about any changes in scholarly understanding of how learning occurs.
However, we should not lose heart. What appear to be immutable structures
are, in fact, slow processes. Changes do occur and they often come from
or are reinforced from "below". As noted, many undergraduate students seek
out interdisciplinary programs, which are often the only avenues open for
those who wish to pursue a broad liberal arts education. Those of us involved
in running such programs must be aggressive in trying to elicit from our
faculties funding commensurate with the influx of students. This struggle
is no different from others: it is long and by no mean certain. Discipline-based
deans of faculties simultaneously appreciate the number of students and
regret the fabled lack of focus and rigor of interdisciplinary programs.
An Alternative Vision
In the Frontiers of Knowledge in the Study of Man published in 1956, the historian Lynn White, Jr., wrote in a conclusion titled "The Changing Canons of our Culture":
Technology had so transformed scholarly work that the old ways of organizing learning activities no longer made any sense, nor did the old rigid disciplinary boundaries. Suffice it to say that classes of the old sort, where a professor lectures and the students take notes, read a text and are examined disappeared completely. The tiresome old debate about teaching vs. research is gone. We are part of a succession of research teams from the moment we arrive at McGill. I suppose you can say that information technology led us to revitalize an even older approach to learning: the apprenticeship system. If we need specific skills or knowledge that can't be "learned by doing", but which are needed for our tasks, we have free access to CAI [Computer Assisted Instruction] materials, most of which are in hypermedia formats, to workshops and to specialist consultants.
Each semester we choose a different research concentration. I've been working with the urban issues group, which includes students at all different levels as well as faculty from very different disciplines ranging from architecture and archeology to civil engineering and epidemiology. And with e-mail, bulletin boards and listserv discussion lists we interact in our research with others around the world, as well as with each other. What a change from the old closed system approach to education in which the undergraduate was often discouraged from taking a broader viewpoint and in which received knowledge was often portrayed as beyond challenge.
I believe that we must change the focus from teaching to learning and not continue to presume that what is taught is actually learned.
At least two influential thinkers of recent decades, Thomas Kuhn (1962) and Howard Gardner (1983), espoused theories that one could think of as being hostile to the role played by disciplinary blinders to inquiry. Yet both wrote in the context of the still powerful default setting of the central role of rigorous discipline-bound training. Kuhn felt it necessary to celebrate the key role of normal science, lest one or more generations of scientists should be corrupted by the allure of shaping a paradigm shift. In a similar manner, Gardner still choses to celebrate the "disciplined mind", approaching a discipline from the perspective of one of our several intelligences rather than challenging the limits to our imagination posed by customary boundaries of inquiry. While recognizing the "shifting cartography of knowledge", he insists on the appropriateness of continuing "to teach disciplinary thinking in high school and perhaps even in college" as a "prerequisite to competent interdisciplinary work" (1998, 52-54).
The 1996 report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences promised in various ways a frontal attack on disciplinary boundaries with its (generally neglected) subtitle "Mestizo Spaces" and the invocation of the words of Michel Foucault: "Disciplines constitute a system of control in the production of discourse . . ." (33). However, in my view, the Report failed to fulfill that promise. Instead it spoke of the supposedly positive function of disciplines in disciplining minds and of channeling scholarly energy (95). There surely are more promising ways of disciplining minds than by fitting them with blinders. Let people learn to read some of the classics of the world's literature in the original language. Let them master a musical instrument. Disciplining minds and limiting perspectives should be two very different matters. That, however, is not likely to be the case when external discipline replaces self-regulation.
Foucault is quite emphatic in his Discipline and Punish about the control function associated with formalized learning. Discipline is externally imposed in a manner that leaves little room for play of the imagination. Kuhn (1962) accepted this restrictiveness when he celebrated well-disciplined normal science as opposed to ill-disciplined, doubting, creative, imaginative inquiry which on exceedingly rare occasions may trigger scientific revolution.
Contrary to what one might conclude from my title, my quarrel is not with disciplined inquiry, but rather with disciplines that impose blinders on our perceptions. The message of modern science is that "the world is one unbroken whole" (Tripp) -- a seamless web. Having been trained in thinking the world apart, we now must ask, as Parker Palmer does, "What it would look like to 'think the world together'. . ." (62). Or to put it another way, analysis must be guided by examination of all relevant elements. We must become conscious of the default settings that come from our disciplinary formation and that limit our horizons.
We do not have to set off on the vain exercise of trying to build a map on a 1:1 scale. Abstracting from reality is an inherent human tendency driven by limits to memory and perception. But we need to be conscious of conditioned responses and trained incapacity. Thomas Kuhn illustrated the role of believing is seeing -- the blinding power of default settings -- when he cited the experiment that reported the non-recognition of the discrepancy on trick playing cards whose red and black colors were reversed (62-64). The dunce cap and the rap on the knuckles of earlier times have been replaced by grading systems as a way of trying to condition what is seen.
The impulse toward disciplinary demarcation and toward externally imposed discipline at all levels of education reflects a basic fear of free expression. How many educational reformers have made their brief mark, leaving a small number of significantly enriched individuals, but unable to shunt aside the resurgent disciplinarians? Raymond Klibansky speaks of a secondary school established in Germany in 1910 which he attended and which changed his life: "The discipline was to be internal. Grade were not given at the end of the year and the student had to be self-stimulated to understand and to learn how to understand" (8). Almost nine decades later there are slight cracks in disciplinary boundaries and even smaller fissures in disciplinary budgets in Universities. As for the self-stimulated autonomous learner, that is more likely to be an empty phrase than a guiding pedagogical value. The disjunction between the rhetoric of learner autonomy and the reality is belied by the continued prevalence of multiple choice examinations. They not only occupy an important place in evaluation of student achievement, but, as the new millennium dawns, we can expect a growing use of such tests as class sizes rise in inverse proportion to staff reductions. How much creative potential is stifled by a system of passive learning and the associated pretense of certainty? As we learned from Kuhn, criticism is rarely, if ever, adequate to trigger change in intellectual preconceptions.
Do disciplines, discipline and anti-politics go hand in hand? Do externally disciplined disciplines and disciplinary boundaries belie an anti-democratic tendency? Here I shall quote Jean Bethke Elshtain on the threat to democratic diversity, but she could just as easily have been referring to free inquiry:
In the view of Riane Eisler, central to the configuration of our social order has been what she terms the "dominator model". In the dominator model the emphasis is clearly on obedience, deference to authority, and a rigid hierarchical ordering of society, "backed up by force or threat of force" (Eisler, xvii). The dominator model exerted a powerful, but not fully exclusive, influence on the family, the workplace, the school, the community, the congregation and the polity.
Eisler argues in The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future that in antiquity the dominator model had largely displaced the "partnership model". The basic distinction which she makes between the two models, is that in the partnership model "social relations are primarily based on the principle of linking rather than ranking . . . diversity is not equated with either inferiority or superiority". She urges us to make the effort both as individuals and as unashamedly normative social scientists to help speed the return of the partnership model. (185-203; Eisler & Loye).
Eisler concludes her book by observing that where the partnership model guides society, "our drive for justice, equality, and freedom, our thirst for knowledge and spiritual illumination, and our yearning for love and beauty will at last be freed. . . . both men and women will at last find out what being human can mean" (203).
I, in turn, conclude that we
must remove controls from learners and learning. The perilous times in
which we live demand that imagination be unbound and that neither disciplines
nor externally imposed discipline immobilize the young from being able
and eager to shape the society in which they shall live.
Eisler, Riane, & David Loye (1987) "Chaos and Transformation: Implications of Nonequilibrium Theory for Social Science and Society," Behavioral Science. 32: 53-65.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Democracy on Trial. CBC Massey Lecture Series. Toronto: House of Anansi, 1993.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York : Pantheon Books 1977.
Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. New York: Pocket Books, 1970.
Gardner, Howard. The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind and The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Hirschman, Albert. Essays in Trespassing: Economics to Politics and Beyond. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Klibansky, Raymond. Le philosophe et la mémoire du siècle: Tolérance, liberté et philosophie. Entretiens avec Georges Leroux. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1998
Kuhn, Thomas The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago, Press, 1962.
Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Mind. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998.
Tripp, Peggy. "Science: On the Path to Postmodernism." Graduate Student Forum, Faculty of Education, Lakehead University. 6 March 1998.
White, Lynn, Jr. Frontiers of Knowledge In the Study of Man, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956.
Zuleta, Estanislao. Educación y Democracia: Un campo de debate. Bogotá: Corporación Tercer Milenio, 1995.