The Un-Disciplined Mind: Imagination Unbound
Myron J. Frankman

Paper presented at Workshop on Social Sciences and Transdisciplinarity: Latin American and North American Experiences, Centre for Developing Area Studies, McGill University, Montreal September 25, 1999. The author may be contacted at:

Reality may be interdisciplinary, but universities still insist on carving up knowledge into relatively discrete disciplinary slices. At McGill University, to focus on the specific case that I know best, the overwhelming majority of academic appointments are to disciplinary departments. At the undergraduate level most students are enrolled in disciplinary programs, while at the graduate level in the Faculty of Arts there may at best be the occasional student in an ad hoc interdisciplinary Ph.D. program. Graduate work is the strongest bulwark against transdisciplinarity. And the fear of not getting into graduate school tends to intimidate many undergraduates from expanding their horizons.

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":

Forty-three years later we still do not know. Moreover, his vision of a "canon" shift from a hierarchy of values to a spectrum of values has certainly not been realized with respect to interdisciplinary studies, which still occupy a distinctly inferior position to that of the established disciplines. White's own contestable language suggests how great the revolution could be. Should we still be speaking in terms of "transmission"? In the words of the Colombian philosopher Estanislao Zuleta: My alternative vision is not merely one in which the subject of academic lectures is broadened, but rather one in which the entire learning experience is altered. In fall 1993, those of us on McGill's Senate Committee on Computing were asked to contribute to the formulation of a five-year vision of educational uses of information technology in learning. My response was in the form of an e-mail message from the future from a student to her parents describing the new world of learning at McGill in December 1998:
  December 1998 has come and gone. Use of hyper-linked materials in the provision of information in all domains is now commonplace across the globe. Little else of the vision is in evidence, except for the budget crisis. Earlier this year, McGill's Principal, Bernard J. Shapiro asked members of the University's Senate (on which I serve) and Board of Governors to suggest options that might be added to a list of thirteen possible responses to our financial woes. Once again I volunteered my viewpoint; once again to no apparent avail. I wrote:
In Praise of Self-Discipline
The grip of disciplines and their associated boundaries on the academic community and much of scientific discourse is still a prominent feature of today's intellectual environment. Albert Hirschman called a 1981 collection of his articles Essays in Trespassing, a title which accepts that disciplinary deformations and specialized vocabulary not only do matter, but render us recognizable symbolic aliens when we roam across the good fences which make good neighbors.

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:

The anti-democrat neither trusts the common person in the political arena nor the common learner in the pedagogic arena. In both contexts control mechanisms are seen as essential and discourse is contained within boundaries to the extent possible.

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. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.

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.