|Author's Note to All Readers:
The articles on this site are copyright
protected, and may be used for scholarly or personal purposes
only. They may not be copied, printed and distributed for
mass use. As a reader, you may, however, quote original
portions of the texts by citing the work using style sheet
format such as the following.
An Internet quote must include the same elements as any
other bibliographic reference (i.e. author, title, date,
and place of publication). Indicate the author, last name
first. The article title, usually at the top of the page,
is then placed in quotes. Next, add the site title, in italics,
as if it were the title of a book. The place of publication
is the URL (address, located just above the main window;
it starts with http:). The date may or may not be indicated;
if not, use the date (month, day, and year) of your last
visit to the site. The following article would be referenced
Radnofsky, Mary, "The Case for an Interdisciplinary Education,"
Socrates Institute, 1995.
If you do quote anything from this site in a book, article,
or electronic format, please let me know, so that I may
become familiar with your work, and may reference it or
link to your sites, as well.
The Case for an Interdisciplinary Education
Mary L. Radnofsky, Ph.D.
The Socrates Institute
View this article in Acrobat Reader.
Current conditions in our nation's schools dictate
that students are taught math, science, literature, history, and
other state-mandated courses in discipline-based classrooms or
time periods, where one topic usually seems to have little relationship
to another. High school students move between different teachers
and classrooms in a highly-fragmented school schedule that permits
some electives for the students, but relatively few, if any opportunities
for the teachers to work in interdisciplinary teams to prepare
and present lessons.
Given the strict time constraints (many schools have gone to periods
of 45 minutes or less), and the local and current national testing
requirements to gauge student learning, it has been difficult
for most public schools to incorporate more effective teaching
practices that require increased time, effort, materials, training,
Educational reformers as well as classroom teachers
and parents have long understood the need for a better education
for our students, not only so that they may compete in a more
closely-linked, technologically-sophisticated world, but so that
they become more active, reflective, and responsible world citizens.
As a result, education has undergone numerous reforms in the past
decade: for example, school restructuring in established site-based
management and teacher empowerment as two of the most recent attempts
at changing the way that we do schooling. Research has proven,
though, that changes in decision-making structures do not necessarily
influence the teaching-learning process at the classroom level.
In other words, for all the expensive changes in power structures,
there seems to have been relatively little change in actual student
Curricular reformers, however, have worked at redesigning and
disseminating materials in such a way as to better and more directly
meet student needs. Since knowledge has been growing at such a
tremendous rate in this century, and since it is virtually impossible
for any one individual to possess all this knowledge, educators
must find new ways of teaching so that the mere acquisition of
discipline-based facts is no longer the singular goal of school.
It cannot be denied, however, that content knowledge is essential
for becoming a well-educated individual, but students must also
learn how pieces of new knowledge are interconnected, and how
they relate to previous knowledge obtained.
Consequently, school curricula must take on a new role, one that
involves looking at the teaching-learning process in new, as well
as very old ways. While innovative educational methods and organizational
structures for teaching have been introduced regularly over the
past several decades (the open classroom, tracking, mainstreaming,
heterogeneous grouping, cooperative learning, magnet schools,
etc.), there have also existed effective teaching techniques for
hundreds of years.
Around 400 B.C., Socrates' school consisted
of the entire "polis," a community balancing the individuals'
personal lives with the shared structure of civic, religious,
socio-political, military, and aesthetic experiences. His students,
among them, Plato, learned from him as they walked along the streets
of the city-state; Socrates would ask questions to stimulate reflection
and discussions on Life and Truth so that when the time came to
act upon human issues and problems, students would be able to
effectively construct meaning, critique their decisions, and then
reconstruct meaning more accurately. Modern constructivist theory
is actually rooted in such premises.
The "Enlightened Eye"
Socrates' students would look not at fragmented, isolated topics
because life unfolded in its entirety, not piecemeal; for example,
questions of architectural design, legality, ethics, or art criticism,
were not separated from an individual's schooling; they were in
fact schooling, and students participated in discussing physical
properties of stones, weather patterns, aesthetics, jurisprudence,
or citizens' needs at any given time, and often in harmony, for
all these subjects would have to be considered in the making of
wise and moral decisions for the community and for its inhabitants.
Much later, in the Middle Ages, the Jewish theologian, Maïmonides
and later, Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas looked upon
education as first an experience of the senses and then of the
mind; they saw Man's ultimate and defining characteristic as that
of rationality, a belief consistent with Aristotelian thought
of a thousand years before. Aristotle's teachings, much of which
had been forgotten, led students through a series of syllogisms
(the most common form of deductive logic), which could address
issues not only of mathematical interest (e.g. If A=B and B=C,
then A=C), but also of a more spiritual and philosophical nature,
such as whether a man can be his own teacher, and whether faith
and reason can be reconciled in a defensible world view accounting
for both an intellectual and a moral society.
In Renaissance times, Leonardo daVinci's genius was revealed more
than through his remarkable talents in diverse disciplines - painter
and sculptor, mathematician, engineer, scientist, strategist,
inventor - it could also be found in his exceptional ability to
unite all this knowledge in innovative ways - ways which had never
been considered before, and which were not considered again for
some four hundred years. He designed the helicopter, the snorkel,
and the parachute; he envisioned machine guns, the tank, and the
bicycle and he sketched human anatomy as well as all sorts of
plants and animals to round his knowledge. Leonardo's often informal
education from his apprenticeships, painting jobs, work as both
civil and military engineer, and as a student of anatomy, botany,
and mathematics was closely and systematically recorded in his
mirror-image script. His unsurpassed creativity and ability to
solve contemporary problems and to anticipate those which did
not yet exist gives us an idea of how we, too, may move beyond
the seemingly simple linearity of facts and observations in a
given situation towards the complex creation of a new whole, far
greater than the sum of its parts, so that we, too, may someday
arrive at Leonardo's "imagining of things that are to be."
Spanning the era between the nineteenth and twentieth century,
John Dewey recognized the value of establishing an environment
in which children would be stimulated to creative and reflective
acts by real problems and situations inherently relevant and interesting
to them; school was not to be like life; it was life, and as such,
had to be as real and genuine as possible. Learning and growth
would come with the ability to intertwine acquired knowledge in
multiple areas for the purpose of constructing - and continually
reconstructing - new experience. Therefore, the classroom curriculum
drew from all the disciplines, and addressed not only a child's
cognitive growth, but his or her "whole" self; this would involve
freedom and responsibility, cooperation, and active participation
in one's own learning experience. Thus, earlier philosophies espousing
a constructivist view of education once again found a more modern-day
Today, we have the opportunity to learn not
only from these teachers, but in many of the same ways as they
did: from our immediate surroundings, from our neighbors and families,
from the social and economic ills of our countries, from the demands
and rewards of society, and from deep reflection. We can learn
from our work and play, from our physical skills and limitations,
from our intellectual acumen, from our teachers, from each other,
and from what educator and artist Elliot Eisner refers to as our
own "enlightened eye," which gives us the ability to critically
perceive the world around us as well as to articulate what we
have seen to others.
One of the ways in which we can help to enlighten our students
is by giving them the opportunities to see and hear things in
different ways from those which they are accustomed. This could
mean studying science from an artistic perspective - something
Leonardo did frequently in his life, as he saw vision, light,
stars, and the production or reflection of light from the aesthetic
perspective - or studying art from a scientific point of view
- something Leonardo also did throughout his life, as he strived
to prove that painting deserved to be considered a "qualitative
science" that reflected the "the decoration of the world." An
enlightened eye would be needed in such a "qualitative science,"
as it is both critical and appreciative of what it beholds; but
to truly understand it, one must understand the context (social,
historical, cultural, economic, religious, practical/functional,
communicative, artistic) of the object under study. These contexts
would provide the interdisciplinary understanding of the object,
and would help the learner achieve what Leonardo called "universality,"
leading to knowledge, and thus eventually to wisdom.
The case for interdisciplinary curricula can then be made using
Aristotelian logic, and Aquinas' favorite syllogistic form of
it, as we may see that:
Since society values reflective and critical thinking skills as
desirable traits of a knowledgeable and wise citizen, and since
myriad opportunities exist (e.g. in businesses, places of worship,
museums, homes, government) where learners may gain these skills
and knowledge in the world beyond a traditional school or classroom,
then it is incumbent upon that society to provide learners all
appropriate measures with which to acquire such an education ---
whether it be inside or outside the schoolhouse.
The design of interdisciplinary curricula is
intended to address the above needs, in that it proposes the discussion
of significant themes whose threads cross time, continents, generations,
races, religions and other apparent differences. These themes
are derived from the collective works of both Humanity and Nature,
thus interweaving as well as recognizing the existing interconnectedness
of the arts and the sciences, people and their world.
The themes that guide further curriculum development must meet
both intellectual and practical criteria; for example, themes
must involve concepts that are not only related, but that are
essential to each discipline; the teaching of the theme interdisciplinarily
must mutually benefit each discipline and allow learners to better
achieve an understanding of related concepts; the thematic teaching
of contextualized subjects must somehow "transcend the subject
bounds," fostering metacognition; and the interdisciplinary theme
must make a significant contribution to some "broader outcome,"
perhaps by transforming the learners' approach to education, or
by teaching learners multiple perspectives and the appreciation
of such new skills and viewpoints.
Many themes - such as Protest & Patriotism, and Growth & Change
- will seem familiar, for they have often been portrayed in music,
film, dance, art, theatre, and verse. Others - such as Thought
& Action, Cognition & Metacognition, or Vision and the Scientific
Habit of Mind - may seem more enigmatic, often more difficult
to articulate, occasionally more controversial.
Reflection upon these themes is a vital step towards understanding
who we are, individually and collectively, and towards one day
doing something valuable with that knowledge for ourselves, for
our children, and for our civilization.
©January 1995 Mary L. Radnofsky