Valuing interdisciplinary studies
A remedy to the contradictions of specialization
Why would a nuclear nonproliferation expert study Thucydides?
For the same reason that a college student should take courses outside of their discipline: there are vital lessons that can be better learned from other fields.
To the budding nuclear experts of my generation, history has a lot to teach that a study of theory does not always include. Particularly for those who have grown up in a time without major world wars, history illustrates the burden of peace. It can correct the misconception that peace is the default state of society — no upkeep required. Sure, theory might lead you to the same conclusion. But then again, it might not. That is not to imply that history is superior to theory or technocratic expertise but merely to say that it too has value to a technocrat and yes, perhaps a nuclear nonproliferation expert should study Thucydides.
I had not contemplated the importance of this in education until I heard the opposite asserted. One student claimed, unblinkingly, that “interdisciplinary majors are a joke” not because of their difficulty or competitiveness, but because they are interdisciplinary. A student with an interdisciplinary major may graduate with a degree from a prestigious university but they won’t have achieved what she defined as the end goal: specialization.
Though I was taken aback at first, I can understand why she thinks this way. A look at how interdisciplinary majors are treated would lead you to believe this student is right. The highest-paying and most heavily recruited jobs are for students with technical expertise; the more specialization the better. Especially in the realm of political science and government, specialization is lauded. You are guided to deep dive into the study of one issue or one region. That is how you become an expert! That is how you get a job!
But if education was devoid of interdisciplinary studies, the societal consequences would be heavy. Disciplines would begin to function as special interest groups, advocating for their field of study with no look to the interplay between issues. Domestic policy specialists would seek to improve programs at home with no understanding as to how it would impact our allies or our place in the world.
By placing so much value on specialization, we handicap ourselves, narrowing our vision. How can a regional expert be expected to contribute to and have a strong grasp of how his area of expertise fits into a larger grand strategy if his education has only consisted of diving deeper into the intricacies of sectarian divides in the Middle East?
This is not to dismiss the need for expertise or specialization nor is it simply a call for more generalists. Rather, it is to emphasize the need for the expansion of education – through the classroom, conversation, or the ambition of the individual – beyond such narrow specialization.
Specialization is a component of expertise, not its equivalent.
The exalting of specialization needs to be tempered by engagement. Just as there is danger in only engaging with ideas that confirm one’s own views, so too is there danger in only engaging in the discipline in which you focus.
If I were the National Security Advisor, I would feel a lot more confident relying on a nuclear expert who had indeed studied Thucydides.
Holly Bahadursingh is a senior studying political science, among many other things. She can be reached at Holly.Bahadursingh.firstname.lastname@example.org.