Should a young scholar with an interdisciplinary bent go into a standard grad program to attain full proficiency in a single discipline first?

Is interdisciplinarity a skill in itself?

Enjoyed a conversation yesterday with my long-time friend Yaakov Garb, who does interdisciplinary research at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. He does great research, I think, integrating multiple frameworks and perspectives to address complex situations, ranging from Eastern Europe urban sprawl issues to green building standards and sustainable organic farming in Bedouin villages. He and I have been able to attain pretty good, but not excellent proficiency in the variety of fields required to understand such topics. Yaakov commented he can see ways his incomplete proficiency has limited his work.

So, we discussed, what advice do we give a young person who wants to engage complex issues? Better to go into an interdisciplinary grad program, gain experience working with that complexity, and attain maybe a 60% expertise level in multiple subjects? Or first put the years into a standard, single-discipline program to get full professional skills there?

I’m not sure of the answer (probably depends on the individual student and the specific academic program), but reflecting on that conversation, it seems to me that the ability to do interdisciplinary work requires skills equivalent to what’s required for expertise in a discipline. These include ability to see & understand context and ability to work back and forth between multiple frames, seeing analogies, overlaps, differences and implications.

Given the time and effort required, it’s difficult if not impossible for a single person to attain highest proficiency in both interdisciplinary skills and in a discipline. Also, some people are genetically predisposed to be proficient in contextual thinking/multiple frames. So, encourage the abductive thinker to go the interdisciplinary path? –while also emphasizing respect for disciplinary expertise, the need to consult with those experts, the importance of getting to that 60% level which enables conversation with them, and the interpersonal skills for engaging in that conversation.

Chaisson Relational Thinking Styles coverThe wife of my friend Hal here in PT, Phyllis Chiasson, an expert in thinking styles, reports that it’s about 1 in 20 people who genetically are abductive thinkers. (See her Relational Thinking Styles and Natural Intelligence.)

On the value of getting multiple diverse learning experiences, rather than a single one in greater depth, there’s Einstein’s story: Failing to get an academic physics position, he worked in the patent office, reviewing ideas for synchronizing railroad clocks. That put him in position to apply the railroad  line & clock model to the physics situation, helping enable the theory of relativity. But his math skills were only good, not great, so sometimes he had to get help from more narrow thinkers with full expertise in math.

In most institutional settings, the abductive thinker’s role wlll be unusual, difficult, and perhaps uncomfortable, because it is intrinsically (and necessarily: imagine a society of just abductive thinkers!) a minority position and challenging to the status quo. There will be the temptation to conform. But the role is probably necessary for essential functional creativity in human communities. In our Saturday morning discussions here with Hal, Dr. Kimber Rotchford, et al., we’ve talked about how that 1/20 proportion of abductive thinkers in the population probably evolved as optimal for both maintaining ongoing stable function and generating sufficient innovation.

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