Harvey Graff explains why interdisciplinary history is often treated with disdain (interview)

tags: history



Harvey J. Graff is Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and professor of English and history at The Ohio State University. A comparative social historian, Graff is noted internationally for his research and teaching on the history of literacy; the history of children, adolescents,
and youth; and urban history and studies. 

Q: How do we account for the simultaneous enthusiasm and disdain with which emergent interdisciplinary fields are often met?

GRAFF: Any understanding of that is necessarily historical. First of all, different people mean different things by reference to interdisciplinarity. A common version traces its beginnings to the 1980s, during the age of, on the one hand, holistic liberal arts education, and on the other, big high-tech, highly specialized science. But most of those who have looked more closely into its history fall roughly into two camps. Each of them is problematic, conceptually and historically. 

People who’ve looked at the history of research and disciplines would date its beginnings closer to either immediately after World War II—for some it’s World War II multidisciplinary work that led to the Manhattan Project, creating nuclear fusion, and then fission, under the football field at the University of Chicago, and then moving off to New Mexico. Or at the same time, innovative work that leads to the modern computer, or efforts to calibrate antiaircraft guns and control of depth charge tonnage. The project has been a real voyage of discovery for me, in these terms, taking me into many fields across the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and professions. 

At the same time, the post–World War II G.I. Bill and the expansion of higher education leads to the refinement of the elective system at elite colleges, the “Red Book” at Harvard, Daniel Bell’s famous book on general education at Columbia, or the effort toward nondisciplinary, but later recalibrated as interdisciplinary, general education—particularly in expanding branch campuses of state schools and junior colleges. 

Those two opposites, each in its own way, become institutionalized with few people even asking whether they might both be accepted as practices of multi- or interdisciplinarity. They often can, despite our tendency to dichotomize specialization and so-called integrative or general education. That sense of opposition confuses our understanding of both disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and importantly, their relationships.

From my research I see the origins of modern interdisciplinarity in the foundation of the modern university in the latter 19th century, largely because, like others who write about this, I see interdisciplinarity as inseparably interrelated to disciplines. This is so often missed.

One of my principal arguments is made by tracing the constantly shifting relationships between disciplines— between and among disciplines and interdisciplines. They’re not stable. Interdisciplines differ from disciplines partly because they seldom recognize their half-lives. They’re not seemingly forever the way disciplines in their canonical forms present themselves. I trace this through twelve case studies over one and a third centuries.

Part of the answer, too, is that interdisciplinarity necessarily varies across what I call disciplinary clusters. By that I mean simply the natural sciences constitute a cluster of closely related disciplines, the humanities do, the social sciences do, some of the professions do. It’s a wonderful story of shifting relationships, some of which take a semipermanent form and become at least partly institutionalized and organized. That’s part of the history of the modern university and its social, cultural, economic, and political relationships.

The story I find myself telling is a very different story than I expected. When I started the project I half expected to find a golden age of interdisciplinarity before disciplines. And, as appealing as that is romantically and idealistically, it’s nonsense; one cannot have interdisciplinarity before there are disciplines in a recognizable, institutional form. ...



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