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What is Interdisciplinarity and Who Needs It?

Student of interdisciplinarity

At the College of Liberal Studies, we are proud to offer interdisciplinary degree programs, but what does this mean for our students?

While the liberal arts served as the foundation of higher education since the rise of universities in the Middle Ages, the 20th century changed all that. Suddenly the traditional liberal arts curriculum was separated into individual disciplines. As a result, knowledge became compartmentalized, and at the university, it became organizationally departmentalized.

Still Important Today

But in recent decades, the liberal arts curriculum re-emerged, and the idea of interdisciplinarity has gained traction. Students in interdisciplinary programs study a broad range of disciplinary topics as opposed to a specific major such as math or history. In addition, most universities offer a number of interdisciplinary programs—e.g., the history of science, bioethics, cultural geography, public administration, international relations.

As long as complex, multi-faceted problems exist, we will continue to offer interdisciplinary/liberal arts degrees to our nontraditional, working adults.

Why does interdisciplinarity matter? Consider a hot-button topic of our time: climate change. To understand climate change, we might first seek the wisdom of climate scientists for guidance on the scientific aspects of climate change. Once we have this information, we might want to find solutions to climate change. Many solutions will involve changing the behavior of the earth’s inhabitants and their institutions. Scientists are probably less equipped to devise these solutions; for that task, we might need psychologists and sociologists. We might also ask historians and political scientists to determine what has been tried in the past and what government has done (or can do) to address climate change. But what about costs, funding mechanisms, and the impact of any measures on private businesses? Here we need accountants, economists, and business scholars. It becomes clear that any solutions to address climate change must come from a variety of disciplines. Climate change is just one of many issues that are multi-faceted and complex.

It’s about the Student and Business

Most of our liberal studies students have considerable experience; they have worked, developed careers, served in the military, and raised families. They want an education that is relevant and academically rigorous, and they want to apply what they learn to the real-world work that they do. We believe that the integrative knowledge that the interdisciplinary approach provides best suits our students’ needs. Along with our focus on critical thinking, clear and effective communication, and attention to problem solving, we are preparing our students to work, live, and participate in a society full of complex issues.

The professional world agrees with us. In an article published last year, A.G. Lafley, President and CEO of Proctor and Gamble, wrote, “[W]ith the liberal arts, you get to exercise your whole brain.” In a recent press release, the Association of American Colleges and Universities highlighted the results of a national survey: “74 percent of business and nonprofit leaders say they would recommend a twenty-first century liberal education to a young person they know in order to prepare for long-term professional success in today’s global economy.” The survey also finds that “80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.”

As long as complex, multi-faceted problems exist, we will continue to offer interdisciplinary/liberal arts degrees to our nontraditional, working adults.

Julie Raadschelders, Ph.D.
Dr. Raadschelders is an appointed faculty member and part-time professor for the College of Liberal Studies. She holds a master’s degree in Public Administration as well a doctorate in Public Policy and specializes in public policy and global financial issues.

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