New Programs of Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinary programs may be founded in order to facilitate the study of subjects which have some coherence, but which cannot be adequately understood from a single disciplinary perspective (for example, Women's Studies or Medieval Studies). More rarely, and at a more advanced level, interdisciplinarity may itself become the focus of study, in a critique of institutionalized disciplines' ways of segmenting knowledge. Perhaps the most common complaint regarding interdisciplinary programs is the lack of synthesis -- that is, students are provided with multiple disciplinary perspectives, but given insufficient guidance in resolving the conflicts and achieving a coherent view of the subject. Critics of interdisciplinary programs feel that the ambition is simply unrealistic, given the knowledge and intellectual maturity of all but the exceptional undergraduate; some defenders concede the difficulty, but insist that cultivating interdisciplinarity as a habit of mind, even at that level, is both possible and essential to the education of informed and engaged citizens and leaders capable of analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information from multiple sources in order to render reasoned decisions.

The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, was the first college to provide thematic interdisciplinary programs. Since opening its doors in 1971, Evergreen's entire curriculum has been taught through interdisciplinary studies.

The School of Interdisciplinary Studies, also known as the Western College Program, was created in 1974 at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The program allows students to take control of their educational path by designing their own major, incorporating various areas of study at Miami University to form an interdisciplinary focus.

Universities worldwide recognize that, in order to address the problems facing humanity today, they must increase their commitment to interdisciplinarity. For example, a grass-roots effort by faculty and students at Stanford University resulted in a new program called Bio-X, which explores the intersections among biology, computer science, medicine, and engineering. The program is housed in the Clark Center, which opened in 2003. Situated along the pathways between the university and the medical center, the Clark Center is designed to both express and facilitate the concept of interdisciplinarity. Each lab is equipped with at least two scientists from each of the participating disciplines, but they are by no means fixed: for example, walls can be moved (or eliminated), and all equipment is on wheels. The entire building is designed to facilitate interdisciplinary communication and to accommodate new, rapid, and unexpected growth as it occurs.

Truman State University, a liberal arts university in Kirksville, Missouri, has recently taken another approach to interdisciplinarity. A new General Education requirement sees that all students take at least one interdisciplinary course before graduation. The university has also developed a process by which students accepted to the interdisciplinary studies major program may design their own majors with the help of a faculty mentor. The major requires that students take two newly created courses about interdisciplinarity in addition to their regular coursework: an introductory course to interdisciplinary studies (focusing on the theory of interdisciplinarity) and a senior capstone (focusing on synthesis/praxis), while the rest of the student's coursework consists of classes in several of the different disciplinary programs. To help ensure that they are serious about their interdiscipinary major, Truman students are required to take 50 credit hours after the acceptance of their major as well as maintain a GPA of 2.8. The first class of IDSM majors at the school were: Rhetoric and Power, Philosophy in Literature, and Gender in Politics, though recently Biochemistry, Medieval Studies, East Asian studies, and Environmental Studies were proposed. Ten interdisciplinary minors are also available to the student body. However, more majors will undoubtedly follow as students continue to transcend the traditional academic disciplines. Truman is also taking a revolutionary step by combining the principle of interdisciplinarity with the "Four Powerful Pedagogies". This combination allows IDSM undergraduates not only to learn how to think interdisciplinarily but also to apply those principles through internships, research, service learning and study abroad experiences.

Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada, is a research intensive university with a rapidly growing Interdisciplinary PhD program, now at 70 students. The demographics of this group is dramatically different from all of the other PhD programs on campus, with mature individuals designing their own programs to respond to individual career goals in industry, government and academic.

Increasingly, universities are consciously incorporating elements of interdisciplinarity into their curricula -- within particular courses, especially as part of general education requirements, or by requiring cognate fields in the academic major, and through such devices as the Learning Community, or the "clusters" system at Washington University in St. Louis.