Innovating Through Artistry

Discipline Gets a Bad Rap

In Uncategorized on May 19, 2009 at 9:37 am

If you play “word association” and ask someone what mental connotations “discipline” conjures up, you’re likely to get some bad, potentially even kinky things; people think of their third grade teacher’s semi-sadism, organizational policies serving to maintain order, and so on. Discipline is what gets done to you when you don’t do what you’re supposed to do. It means punishment and the enforcement of rules.

A not-at-all new trend in the debate surrounding university administration is criticizing disciplines. The argument is: The world is too complex for the antiquated structure of academic disciplines; we need interdisciplinary (some go so far as to use the word transdisciplinary) solutions to real world problems; in order to keep up with this demand from society at large, public research university need to change and adapt; they should scrap the tradition of discipline-based departmentalizing. No more Department of English or Department of Mathematics.

This line of reasoning was recently given a voice and a lot of attention when professor Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “The End of the University as We Know It.” Professor Taylor proposes six action items for university reform. I agree with four of them: 1) restructure the curriculum, 2) Increase collaboration among institutions, 3) Transform the traditional dissertation, and 4) Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. I disagree with the remaining two: 5) Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure, and 6) Abolish permanent departments. The former, the one about tenure, receives a compelling rebuttal from a friend and colleague of mine here. So let me respond to the latter (given the constraints of a blog forum):

Discipline can be a good thing. If you don’t like the mental image of corrective punishment, think of a ninja. Or a samurai. Martial artists train long and hard to practice their craft and observe their philosophy with absolute concentration. Considered from this angle, discipline means rigor. And carefully executed action directed toward a specific goal. Academic disciplines, I say, can be thought of in this way. To be sure, Professor Taylor’s criticism is well-taken. In their worst instances, academic disciplines are silos where scholars in adjacent offices don’t talk to each other. Little or no collaboration happens within some dysfunctional departments, much less among them. But, as Taylor points out, problems can be solved by smart people. And I disagree with his contention that the best solution is to de-discipline the academy.

Let us instead make disciplines more disciplined. Give departments the resources they need for “carefully executed action directed toward a specific goal.” Departments should be like ninja training camps, where methodological and epistemological rigor is taught and practiced with absolute focus. Then, when such a habit is firmly reestablished in academic culture, let’s start the Water Program that Taylor suggests. I think it is a fantastic idea, and I will be the first humanist to sign up for such an initiative. But not when it is presented as the Other in a false dichotomy where disciplines are unfashionable. I absolutely cannot wait to be part of the university where disciplinarity is the resource and the vital raw material for interdisciplinary problem solving. Because on some level, I agree with Taylor: “Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge,” he says. Yes indeed! But if I were organizing the Water Program, I would want the researchers to come from the very cores of their respective disciplines. I would seat a diehard physicist next to a diehard rhetorician next to a diehard psychologist and watch the sparks fly.


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