The Interdisciplinary Illusion, or Why Our Modern Secularized Colleges Aren't Nearly as Hip (or Interdisciplinary) as They Would Like to Think

"The early American college required its students to study not only scriptural texts and commentaries, but also history and natural philosophy--a tripartite division of knowledge corresponding roughly to today's triumvirate of humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.  A college aspired to be a place (in [John Henry] Newman's later formulation) where 'all branches of knowledge' are 'connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator.'  Its subject was nothing less, in [Jonathan] Edwards's words [Yale, class of 1720], than 'the university of things,' a phrase that preserves the root meaning of the word 'university': the gathering of all knowledge into a unified whole.†  Until the last third of the nineteenth century, this effort to grasp to grasp what Frederick Barnard (the man for whom the women's college at my [Columbia] university was named) called 'the beautiful truths which are to be read in the works of God' remained the official purpose of America's colleges.

"Today, the word 'interdisciplinary' is bandied about at every academic conference and praised in every dean's report, but in fact most of our academic institutions are much less interdisciplinary than were their counterparts in the past.  In the early American college, since all studies were unified as one integrated study of the divine mind, boundaries between 'fields' or 'disciplines' did not exist.  'There is not one truth in religion, another in mathematics, and a thirds in physics and in art,' as one Harvard graduate ([Horatio Greenough] class of 1825) put the matter.  'There is one truth, even as one God.'"

--Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 40.

†[Not quite: the medieval universitas was a collection of masters and students from all different nationes.  It was "universal" because its members came from "everywhere" (sort of).  But it's nice metaphor.   And they did try to study everything, at least ideally.  Well, sort of.  It's complicated. --FB]


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