Interdisciplinearity LO22785

Richard Karash (
Sun, 3 Oct 1999 14:46:01 -0400

Replying to LO22769 --

Tom Abeles wrote:

>Robert Bates Graber, in his little book, Valuing Useless Knowledge
>discusses this in a few wonderous pages.
>"The liberal arts may be defined -- impishly, but accurately, nonetheless
>-- as essentially those areas of knowledge in which practical minded
>parents hope their children will not major."
>In the end he says: "In this light, the valuing of 'useless knowledge'
>appears as nothing less than humankind trying to save itself."

I think we risk overlooking the obvious: The value of a well-rounded
education. Graber, according to Tom, values this. But, the comment
"Parents hope..." indicates that many do not.

There may be arguments for and against interdisciplinearity in higher ed
faculty or in organizing courses of study, but that's not really our topic
here on learning-org.

I think our topic here is how ordinary people (managers, engineers,
citizens... even consultants) should prepare themselves to be most
effective in the world.

My brother-in-law is a genuine technical guru. At MIT he learned his
technical specialties. But, he refers often to the value of the
classical education he received in highschool for its value in making
sense of the world. I agree.

I'm also an MIT product. The technical material came easily for me, and I
put quite a bit of energy into other fields. This I found not only
effective, but remarkably enjoyable as well. I'm sure it makes me a more
interesting person as well.

I have these personal observations about interdisciplinearity as a
personal growth strategy:

1. I find it remarkably refreshing to dive into a new area from time to
time. I seem to oscillate in 3-5 year cycles between going deeper in
whatever is my main line at the time and branching out to related fields.
For example, during the past few years, I've been reading some philosophy
to better understand the background and underpinnings of this org learning
field. In my prior education, I purposely ignored philosophy as

2. I think there's a basic tradeoff between going deeper in a
specialty and going broad. There are fields in which you can only
play by going very deeply (e.g. medical specialties or performing
arts at a high level). Then there's the plight of the specialist who
feels they've missed life, as John Gunkler described in LO22768. In
my view, I doubt that total 110% focus on one area over a long period
will actually produce better results in *that area* (as opposed to an
80-20 balance). Short intervals are different... I enjoy becoming
total engrossed in something for short intervals of a month or two.

3. I really worry about the "Parents hope..." quote above. My wife
and I both developed technical skills at MIT. Our daughter majored in
liberal arts at Stanford. I'm not worried a bit... She has an
excellent education and is well prepared for the challenge of meeting
the world. In my view, that challenge is that formal education can
never teach you enough; you must enter the world with the ability to
learn all the rest you'll need. I know she has the ability to learn

4. More on the liberal arts... I've had the opportunity to create in
technical fields and in art. At MIT I enjoyed very serious
photography courses from Minor White, one of the great names in the
field. In my personal experience, there is no time when I feel so
alive as in creating something... And, the feeling is just as strong
when creating something in art as something technical. The internal
rewards are as important as the practical. To lose sight of this --
To say that the liberal arts don't mater -- is to turn our backs on
half of what really makes us human.

(As for my art... Well, I've never been tempted to quit my day job!)

5. For making a contribution to the world, there's a role for the
narrow specialist... and for the more rounded thinker who accurately
sees applications. The transistor came from specialists. The
applications (personal electronics to computers and more) I don't
think came from the narrow specialists. In terms of practical
advances, I'll place my bets on people who are at least reasonably
well rounded. Someone said earlier in this thread something like "the
cure for cancer will come from a biochemist, not from
(interdisciplinearity)" OK, but in my book, biochemistry is itself
interdisciplinary... Biology + Chemistry. And, it's not just a
molecule or a theory... The cure or prevention of cancers will come
from a multifaceted approach with practical delivery vehicles.

In summary: As a personal strategy for being effective in the world,
one can go narrow or add some dabbling around the main theme. I find
it more fun *and* more productive to include a very broad education
and some continuous dabbling around the edges. But, each person has to
make their own choice.

-=- Rick


Richard Karash ("Rick") | <> Speaker, Facilitator, Trainer | "Towards learning organizations" | Host for Learning-Org Discussion (617)227-0106, fax (617)523-3839 | <>

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