Interdisciplinarity as an End in Itself
Cautionary reflections on the Luce Seminars
By James Gustafson, Former Luce Professor of Humanities and Comparative Studies


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Academic Exchange October/November 2000 Contents Page

Last spring, James Gustafson, formerly the Luce Professor of Humanities and Comparative Studies, returned to Emory to address a gathering of faculty participants in the Luce Seminars. From 1989 to 1996, Emory conducted this series of interdisciplinary faculty seminars under Gustafson's leadership. The seminars were held annually each spring semester. The following is an adapted excerpt from his retrospective reflections on the seminars.

In my late thirties, I was seared by academic politics in New Haven and kept as far away from proposals for institutional and educational reform and other matters as I could for the rest of my career, often to the annoyance of colleagues. Now that no one can make a claim on me to get involved in the grit of institutional change,
I have thought more about some institutional implications of what we did together here during the decade I was with you, and I want to remark briefly on interdisciplinarity.

I never thought interdisciplinarity was an end in itself. Indeed, I never uttered that word, to the best of my memory. In response to a request to appraise many documents from an institution that is discussing a possible Ph.D. in "interdisciplinarity," I had to become more explicit about why. I learned how ignorant I was of a body of literature, including at least one journal, which I guess I should have read while conducting the Luce Seminars. The best "end-in-itself" reason I ever gave for our work here was the sheer intellectual joy of expanding our reading beyond our fields, and of engaging other minds which had been honed by different interests and different training. I do not demean that end-St. Augustine's amor frui, in contrast to amor uti, loving something as a good in itself and not because it is useful. For most of us, the intellectual job was very satisfying, if not fulfilling.

The intellectual joy of our Luce Seminars carried over, I always hoped, into some modification of our activities beyond and after a session or a semester of sessions. One thing that irritated me about the materials sent for my appraisal was the absence of any discussion of reasons why the intersections of various disciplines might be worth relating to each other. The program proposed was to begin with a seminar on "interdisciplinarity" and to culminate in another seminar by the same title. There weren't even any examples of the materials that would be used in seminars, of which disciplines on which topics would be explored. There was no indication of awareness of different comparative dimensions, of which matters needed precise and careful attention when the methods of one discipline confronted the dimensions of another. I saw no signs of the intellectual rigor that is required to understand differences between disciplines-something I would think essential before one thought about synthesizing them. Painful reminders of persons I have known came forward--persons who were very adept at talking about the relations between ideas and other materials with only a minimal knowledge of what was being
related.

The documents were all about processes and nothing about substance. They left the impression that the aim of interdisciplinarity was to encourage synthesis of whatever unnamed subjects were to be studied, as if graduate students and faculty members of no greater capacities than any of us were all geniuses who might integrate diverse knowledge in a unique and earth-shaking way. I remembered when I had
to read catalogues of institutions in 1954 and found that at Drew University, one man had the title, "Professor of Comprehensive Knowledge."

Retrospectively, I had some anxiety about this assignment. I wondered if I had been asked to review the program because our work here at Emory had a reputation for endorsing "interdisciplinarity" as an end in itself, whether at a faculty level, in graduate education, or in the college. Like other legitimate aspirations of academic and intellectual life, interdisciplinarity can become a fad--and this progressive institution is about to help lead the way. The end is not, except perhaps for the very, very rare genius, some grand synthesis at whatever point or level the genius can make all abrasive things friction-free, all incoherences cohere. And it certainly is not that for graduate students or college students. Limited effective outcomes based on rigorous and sustained interactions of disciplines at points where they address the same or similar phenomena, texts, or events, is preferable to breezy, oily (note the differences in my adjectives-suggesting a bias) breakthroughs that cannot sustain severe critical analysis. Imagination is valued, highly valued, in interactions across disciplines, or within specializations with them. Being able to image forth different pros-pects and possibilities is essential. But so is critical rigor that comes from training in the methods and procedures of a traditional discipline. The effects, as least for most of us, are expansions and alterations of what we have mastered best, what we have learned to be and to do.

Avoid "interdisciplinarity" (I still choke a bit on the word) as a process which is its own end.