Reductionism won't save the world

June 25, 2009

As confirmed interdisciplinarians, there were very few points with which we could agree in Robert Segal's article "Crossing borders can lead to gold - but so can digging deep" (18 June). Having identified a crock of gold in the title, he goes on to damn interdisciplinarity with faint praise. Moreover, he sets up an "Aunt Sally" target simply to knock it down again.

Traditionally, academia has tended to look at developing learners' "problem-solving" skills, with problems narrowly defined within disciplinary confines, but this approach is increasingly irrelevant in the face of the world's growing complexity.

Rietje van Dam-Mieras, vice-rector magnificus of Leiden University, has expressed concern about the increasingly reductionist approach to teaching taken by universities: subjects have become increasingly specialised and issues have been reduced and sanitised so that students can cope.

This creates the illusion of problem-solving, but fails to recognise the "partial differential" approach that means the exercise becomes increasingly academic and divorced from reality.

So how do we help learners to approach real-world problems when they are so complex? A key method is the use of small interdisciplinary, collaborative groups, where the process of intellectual development is more important than displays of academic brilliance.

We need graduates from our universities who are capable of "thinking outside the box". Of course, disciplines ebb and flow, merge and split off, so that new subjects emerge from the melding of others. We could even end up with interdisciplinarity as a discipline.

Counting the number of angels that can dance on a pinhead may be a complex issue that should primarily be tackled by theologians but, doubtless, number theorists might have something to offer, too.

Charles Engel, visiting professor, University of Manchester; Charles Bland Tomkinson, adviser on pedagogic development, University of Manchester.

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