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The art of science

What is the actual purpose of interdisciplinary education? Does everyone need it? More importantly, who will teach it and how? Rukmini Bhaya Nair, professor of linguistics and English, IIT-Delhi, on how to expand our knowledge universe.

Interdisciplinary as become a much abused term. To begin on a slightly facetious note, it is a bit like coalition politics. People call it a collaboration between parties towards a common goal. Sure, it is a great thing if it works like it should. But it can go wrong when the goals are not well-defined, when it is pulled in different directions and is no longer really 'interdisciplinary' but anti-disciplinary.

'Inter' is a prefix and its success depends on disciplines being clear about their goals. In my view, this requires you to have a set of questions that cannot be answered within your discipline, therefore you move to others, and ask and interact that help you answer these questions.

But what kind of questions are these? Say, if we ask what is violence or what are the roots of violence. It is a theme that runs through biology, psychology, cognitive science, sociology. So if we are asking questions like this, which everybody needs to address, we will require interdisciplinary inputs.

The other thing is why is this suddenly a major concern? We are in a time of rapid change that is driven by technological change, globalisation, social change. It is not only the world that is changing but the structures of thought, and disciplines are beginning to question themselves. Geography for example: it has changed its contours a lot over ages, it has moved from capitals and flags of countries to human geography and migration questions. We need an interdisciplinary language which hasn't evolved yet. The questions we need to address in our research need to be specific, well articulated and have right research tools. We are builders not just of bridges but of society.


Engineering sciences also need a creative aspect - idea was that you should be able to solve not just an engineering problem but know problem solving itself. It is not just a transmission of handed down knowledge.

Humanities and social sciences need to be the core of the idea of inter-disciplines today because in the sciences, there has never been the question of math without physics, or biology without chemistry. In social sciences, this has been much less common. Within our modern universities, everyone was trying to create their own domains of inquiry that are distinct. But this century is one where we need to bring together these domains.

Many scholars/teachers feel that they must police the boundaries of their disciplines. They don't want to be intruded by inarticulate elements. It is genuine concern with scholarship but you can't cling to this balustrade all your life. Some will continue to live within their disciplinary homes but we need people who can then take the risk to move out of their spheres. We need more open-book exams, which require a lot of effort (for teacher to design questions). They also need deep understanding of the world and dedication of teachers. This move won't be easy.


University is a universe where everyone comes together. Knowledge cannot be compartmentalized for convenience. Students, today, also realise that if you work in a narrow discipline, it is difficult to get a job. Everyone needs and wants flexibility in their training. That way, we also rid academics of its snobbery. It is a matter of questioning and not just knowing. We don't inculcate that. We haven't encouraged that in schools.

Thanks to technology, we are bombarded with knowledge all the time. Teaching basics is good but only when you provide it valueadded that means teach what is not there on the internet. That is critical in face-to-face teaching. The problem of adequate and trained teachers is critical. We also need to modify how we teach our teachers.


Value education would not be in itself even close to interdisciplinary concerns. This is something like moral science, it is about building a conscience. That might be part of philosophical training etc. What we need to inculcate quite early on is a stance towards knowledge, which does not involve saying that see, this is part of a physics class only.

People can ask very basic questions and those can perhaps be answered simply within a sophisticated discipline like physics. But when that happens, that person should also have the rigour to answer the question from other different angles.
Children have been put in boxes. The problem is that often these disciplines (like philosophy) are not part of curriculum. These were considered meta disciplines that asked questions about knowledge itself and because we took a pragmatic view of school education, we kept these out (philosophy, linguistics). Those need to be introduced rather than value education.

At the university level, philosophy is the poorest (lowest importance, lowest enrolment ), as is linguistics. Literature is moving towards poverty. We need to enrich our understanding of these disciplines because they are meta disciplines.
We can't answer these educational concerns with anodyne solutions such as value education. They do not point to intellectual engagement. Schools need to re-engage, these disciplines need to be brought in but not in a rigid way.
Interdisciplinary education remained an empty signifier. It needs to be more than just a buzz word.

As told to Padmaparna Ghosh 

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