The importance of interdisciplinarity

The importance of interdisciplinarity

I often hear students of all classes complaining about having to take courses outside of their majors. I empathize with this sentiment. No one wants to be distracted from their truest passion. However, I think that resenting Pathways and the Common Curriculum or taking the easiest blow-off classes to meet the minimum requirements is misguided and, indeed, misses the whole point of attending a school like Trinity.

Part of what makes Trinity special is the distinguished, world-class faculty in every department. It is the faculty’s consistent talent that makes the school as good as it is.

President Danny Anderson has said that the value of a liberal arts education in modern times is the creation of a well-rounded human being, whose exposure to information and styles of thinking beyond the norms of their major make them more adaptable and more valuable in both the search for employment and life in general.

Of course, it is completely natural to resent having to take a class beyond one’s major, especially when there are so many good classes in every major’s department. For the genuinely overloaded engineer taking three labs in a semester, there may not be enough hours in the day to dedicate to a non-engineering course. For the philosophy major who hated math, chemistry, biology and physics in high school, taking a college-level science course is even more anathema. I am a chemistry major with an interest in elements of physics, math, engineering and computer science, so I face the issue of there being simply too many courses that I want to take within the sciences, let alone outside of them.

That said, I have taken an abundance of non-STEM classes, even beyond what is required for Common Curriculum, and I plan to take more. Some of these courses, like Peter Balbert’s “American Literature 1900-Present” and David Rando’s “Literary Methods” were material heavy and very time-consuming. Others, like David Lesch’s “Medieval Islamic History” were somewhat less demanding, but no less valuable. From these classes I gleaned a wealth of knowledge and perspective into the functionality of other disciplines that I would never have been aware of had I solely taken STEM classes or simply chosen a blow-off class.   

Indeed, after taking classes in both the liberal arts and the sciences, I am struck by common themes and problems. Across disciplines, theories are proposed and refined as they are stretched to their limits in practical application. Over time, the elements of theories that work well are kept while those that don’t are left behind. There are common issues of intellectual property, verification and attribution of credit. Large egos and entrenched biases compromise the purity of the discipline.

Of course, there are fundamental differences across disciplines. The liberal arts tend to be fundamentally subjective, while science is fundamentally objective. However, this does not invalidate the practical benefit that comes from merging perspectives across fields. A gender studies perspective can help eliminate historical biases that still exist in the sciences. Techniques rooted in science enable the preservation, and thus continued analysis, of great works of art as well as the creation of wholly new art forms. In the real world, interdisciplinarity is everywhere. Medical schools now value students who have backgrounds in English or communication. Multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies rely on both chemistry majors and marketing majors in the broader process of producing and selling a drug. As a chemistry major, I know that exposure to computer science and chemical engineering will improve my ability to conduct valuable research. Similarly, I would surmise the political scientists naturally benefit from a knowledge of history.

Interdisciplinarity is inescapable, whether in academia or industry. Moreover, a dedication to taking classes beyond your major will yield continuous benefits in your personal experience of the world and connection with other people for the rest of your life. It is with this in mind that I stress the importance of not simply taking an easy required class and sleeping through it, but instead actively getting the most out of it, and thus the most out of the truly unique faculty excellence across disciplines that Trinity offers (not to mention getting your tuition’s worth).

Lastly, if any faculty are reading, it is absolutely necessary to offer science classes geared specifically for non-science majors. Scientific literacy is critically important; it is as much a disservice to graduate a philosophy major without an even cursory awareness of modern science as it is to graduate an engineer who can’t write a communicative essay.