Welcome breaches of discipline

Let’s penetrate the academic boundaries, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

June 13, 2013

The word is horrid but the concept is good. When we prate about interdisciplinarity we ought to be sincere. Getting one’s head above one’s furrow, peering at other people’s, seeing the field and contemplating the whole landscape are mind-broadening, context-setting routines that inspire ideas, enrich research, enhance understanding and enliven teaching. Disciplinary boundaries are usually accidents of history and there is no good reason to respect them. My own discipline is a case in point.

History departments emerged in 19th-century universities in defiance of some of the most stunning intellectual trends of the era. Geology exposed the stratigraphy of the Earth, disclosing that the planet was many millions of years older than most people had ever suspected. At the same time, palaeoarchaeology demonstrated the sometime existence of creatures very like ourselves, turning up evidence that hominid species had preceded or formerly coexisted with Homo sapiens – Neanderthals, first, then an increasingly bewildering array of other hominids, whose behaviour might have cast light on our own. Theories of evolution, meanwhile, located human history in vast contexts, comprehending the whole of creation and a vast tranche of time.

Historians, almost without exception, ignored the science of their times and focused instead on a brief period and on almost ­trivially tiny problems - setting boundaries that have enclosed us ever since

Yet the historians, almost without exception, ignored the science of their times and focused instead on a brief period and on almost trivially tiny problems – setting boundaries that have enclosed us ever since. Two circumstances help to explain this surprising outcome.

First, the rise of the nation state warped historians’ work. States – or public institutions dependent on them – founded or seized most 19th-century universities in Europe. Even in the US, where churches and private philanthropists played a big role, nation-building seemed an urgent task, as huge numbers of immigrants had to be educated or re-educated in common nostrums.

Ideally, the vigilance of historians, as the guardians of posterity, should have restrained the state. One can see this ideal embodied in the old chamber of Congress in Washington DC, where a statue of Clio, the muse of history, carved in marble by Carlo Franzoni in 1810, dominated the room, sternly surveying the legislators at work, writing their deeds in the book she held open before her. Unfortunately, however, the power relationship was the reverse of what the statue implied. History was written at the state’s bidding, in the US and everywhere else. The consequences were disastrous, because national histories are almost always distorted by the need to defend or dethrone myths.

Meanwhile, universities recruited historians from the ranks of already oversubscribed academic constituencies: lawyers, classicists and theologians. Classicists might have studied writers, but overwhelmingly they studied writings instead. Lawyers might have studied people’s foibles, in alliance with physicians and psychologists; instead, the traditions of their profession diverted them into the perusal of texts – laws and the transcripts of cases. Theologians – Christian ones, at least – should perhaps have studied human beings, in whom God is instantiated and Christ incarnate. Their first task, however, as most of them saw it, was to scrutinise the Bible and patristics. History became another branch of “humane letters”, in the academic jargon of the time. So historians regarded everything unwritten as alien. They foreclosed on the study of non-literate times or peoples and became fixated on texts: mainly laws, chronicles, legal records and charters, at first. At their best, historians tried to make excursions into archaeology, antiquarianism and philology, but hardly much further into interdisciplinary adventures.

Because each generation of scholars filters candidates to succeed it and tends to choose sycophants and imitators, it takes a long time for any academic tradition to alter. The history curriculum I followed at the University of Oxford as an undergraduate in the late 1960s and early 1970s was still almost entirely focused on the rigorous reading of documents. It was a valuable kind of intellectual formation, but I got into trouble for wanting to use it as a basis for departure into other kinds of work. As a young graduate student I could find no teachers to share my interest in environmental history – or “historical ecology”, as we called it then – except Alistair Crombie, reader in the history of science, who was himself a marginalised and unbefriended member of the Oxford faculty.

In practice, in consequence, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, historians had little or no scientific education and enclosed their discipline in arbitrarily narrow limits. The natural part of human behaviour was studied apart from culture, and vice versa, by different groups of academics who barely communicated with one another.

Organisation into departments has petrified disciplinary boundaries. While we look for better structures, we can begin with two immediate practical measures. First, mix the breeds: get scientists sharing corridors with theologians and sociologists with art historians. Second, complement existing departments with secondary structures to which all academics should belong: cross-disciplinary reading groups (where interdisciplinary research groups are not possible) comprehending in each case at least half a dozen disciplines, including sciences and humanities in every group. Such moves could educate specialists in each other’s traditions, or simply help us do what universities are for – to learn from each other.

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