as an End in Itself
on the Luce Seminars
By James Gustafson,
Former Luce Professor of Humanities and Comparative Studies,
Undisciplined, the Multidisciplined, and the Interdisciplined
A table of some generally differential attributes
This essay was written
in response to James Gustafson's "Interdisciplinarity
as an End in Itself: Cautionary reflections on the Luce Seminars"
(October/ November 2000 Exchange). An expanded version, including
footnotes and "Relevant and Irrelevant Reflections,"
is available by clicking here.
"There is a time
to divide and a time to unite" (André Lwoff)"
". . . and one
must judge wisely the time to do either--or neither" (André
Over the several months since
I first reacted to Jim Gustafson's recommendation that we avoid
the "interdisciplinary," I have tried to reflect upon
our apparent disparate views. As personal experience was used
by Jim to explain his position, so have I chosen to elaborate
my response from a personal perspective, sharing an academic
sojourn of several decades that has helped the ever-undisciplined
student to become a multidisciplined pediatrician/scientist/public
health practitioner and an interdisciplined humanist. My views,
contrasting the interdisciplinary and the multidisciplinary (too
often used interchangeably), are summarized in the accompanying
table, with the hope of eliciting further un-, multi-, or
I began life in multicultural
Alexandria, Egypt--where my early education was spiced by attendance
at a French elementary school and, later, at an English Eton-like
high school. Accepted at the University of Texas in Austin as
a pre-med student, my desire for knowledge took many undisciplined
(some might say uncontrolled) paths. Often bored by the prerequisite
chemistry, physics, and zoology courses, I audited classes in
philosophy, sociology, literature, and the like. I also joined
the "Curtain Club," directing and writing several plays
(mostly on scientific themes). This was good preparation for
several of my later academic activities-directing a laboratory
and an infectious diseases team, and presentations (play-acting?)
in classrooms, meetings and conferences. The playwriting proved
particularly helpful in preparing grant applications--after all,
both are figments of our experiential imagination.
My readings in college included science history books recounting
the lives of the discoverers of the bacterial causes and prevention
of many diseases. This led me, as a foreign student unable to
be accepted in a U.S. medical school, to ask the chair of bacteriology
at Texas (this was 1950), if I could pursue a master's degree
with a major in bacteriology and a minor in playwriting (alas--my
minor had to be biochemistry). My tenure in the University of
Texas Student Assembly (gained, I must confess, by obtaining
the vote of the minority group of foreign graduate students)
also helped me learn how to withstand, with some equanimity in
later years, the "slings and arrows of outrageous"
The dualism I confronted then between the particular and the
general--between the individual patient and focused laboratory
research, and the larger issues related to health in society--intensified
in my later education. After Texas, I followed the "general"
path, as I went on to obtain a master's degree in public health
at the University of Michigan. The following year involved the
"particular," as I attended medical school at George
Washington University. My freshman year was the worst in my life,
partly due to my holding three jobs, but primarily because I
to leave behind all pretense of using my brain, except for rote
After an internship year in New York, with my greatest achievement
being learning how to play the violin, I first came to Atlanta
to join the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service. These wonderful
two learning years combined epidemiology, veterinary medicine,
and laboratory bench work-supplemented by rounds at Grady Hospital
with Emory's new chair of pediatrics, Richard W. Blumberg. After
the CDC years, I was torn again. Should I further my pediatric
training? Should I continue in the larger
epidemiology/public health world? In laboratory bench research?
Irresolute, I visited Dr. René Dubos at the Rockefeller
Institute; he wisely told me that if I worked in the laboratory,
I may never see a patient again. That settled my choice, and
I opted for pediatrics in Boston. Subsequently, I also obtained
training there in virology during the very exciting era of a
great number of virological discoveries.
multidisciplinary physician/scientist/public health practitioner
Soon after joining Emory
in January 1964, I encountered a baby with a severe case of herpes
simplex virus (HSV) infection, born to a mother with genital
herpes, whose new viral etiology I helped to ascertain. This
led to my first multidisciplinary experience by combining medical-scientific-public
health approaches to the study of herpes viruses.
Such approaches were also
the mainstay of the international conference I organized at Emory
in 1980 entitled The Human Herpesviruses --An Interdisciplinary
Approach. In retrospect, I now believe that it should have been
subtitled instead A Multidisciplinary Approach. There was indeed
a central focus--the five human herpesviruses known at that time--but
we discussed these viruses primarily from medical, scientific,
and public health perspectives. I did include discussions on
the evolution of herpes and other viruses, as I had appreciated
that the most holistic approach to biology and many other fields
is the evolutionary perspective. There was no attempt at the
conference, however, to bring out the more human aspects--the
cultural, economic, sociological, ethical, psychological-related
to these viruses.
Evolutionary thinking stimulated
me later to pursue studies identifying the first human immuno-deficiency
virus type 1 (HIV-1) in blood collected in Zaire in 1959.
By the early 1980s, however, it had already become apparent to
of us that HIV/AIDS was not only a scientific-medical-public
health problem but one presenting many fundamental human issues,
such as the rights of the (infected) individual and the rights
of society (uninfected members). In 1985, as
president of the International Interdisciplinary AIDS Foundation
(IIAF) in Geneva, I helped to bring together scientists, physicians,
nurses, social workers, and public health officials worldwide,
along with representatives of the law, media, politics, religion,
ethics, philosophy, economics, sociology, anthropology, education,
history, and other disciplines. The 1987 IIAF Conference in Atlanta
on "AIDS in Children, Adolescents, and Heterosexual Adults"
was truly interdisciplinary, in contrast to the earlier herpesviruses
conference. aids also taught me, best of all, that we could not
respond to its many challenges with the old, "vertical,"
hierarchical approach, but that a more "horizontal,"
circular one was needed, whereby all participants are equal contributors
with their own expertise and experience.
I really only discovered the university and its academic community
after being at Emory about twenty-five years by attending the
Luce Seminar, led by Jim Gustafson. The focus of our discussions,
"Responsibility," although abstract, stimulated me
to engage in later practical initiatives on child advocacy. The
first was to try to help children in our city by embracing the
unifying community spirit engendered upon learning that Atlanta
was hosting the 1996 Olympics. The submitted plan would have
had the Olympics Committee interact with the many governmental
and non-governmental child-related agencies and the various metropolitan
universities, showing the world that "Atlanta is a city
that cares for children." The proposal was turned down;
unswayed, I later directed my children's initiatives within the
more local setting of our pediatric department and the larger
university. I have helped to make "Child Advocacy and Public
Service (CAPS)" part of the academic mission for our department--as
it had already been for our law school--with the hope that other
departments and schools might follow suit.
I empathize greatly with Jim Gustafson choking on the word "interdisciplinarity"--it
is indeed an abused and overused buzzword. Coming from my field
of science, however, which has progressed well with its reductionist
approach, I do not believe this approach alone will help us bridge,
for instance, the Nobel-rewarded neuroscience on the brain of
lower species and the pathos of children with autism, or
of adolescents and adults with schizophrenia. We are academicians,
with a richness of expertise-whether particular or general, basic
or practical, as philosophers, pediatricians, or poets. Jim has
shown us repeatedly that no matter our expertise, our unique
perspectives add to the richness of the academic moment. He demands
particularly the "intellectual rigor that is required to
understand differences between disciplines-something essential
before one thought about synthesizing them." I agree in
large part-but I also believe that there is still room for contributions
to the interdisciplinary dialogue by others, such as a poet without
a formal education. Certainly, no one wishes for the university
to be a Tower of Babel; but neither should it be an Ivory Tower--rather,
it ought to be an active participant within the communal Circle
Differences in definitions
are likely to explain my apparent disagreement with Jim Gustafson.
Thus, in Webster's dictionary, "discipline" is a word
used to define largely three concepts: 1) teaching and learning;
2) a system of rules governing conduct or activity; and 3) punishment.
The integration of these three concepts leads me to suggest that,
within the wide expertise of the various academic disciplines,
if discipline is not placed on past, current, and future vital
areas related to the human condition, academia will indeed risk
being disciplined by society, now and in the future.
Jim--we need your help.