Report on Interdisciplinarity and the Future of Knowledge

By Sinan Farooqui

Class of 2022

Interdisciplinarity lies at the heart of Duke Kunshan University’s innovative curriculum for the 21st century. Building on the work of the Humanities Research Center in Planetary Ethics and Artificial Intelligence (PETAL) and Digital Humanities, the HumanSpace+ Research Group, investigates the goals, values and practices of interdisciplinary integration in the production of knowledge. Thereby, Duke Kunshan University through Professor James Miller (Associate Dean of Interdisciplinary Strategy) and the HumanSpace+ Research Group held a series of conversations with leading theorists and practitioners of interdisciplinarity in the world today to explore how interdisciplinarity is tied to innovation and future of knowledge.

The first of these talks was with Professor Simon Goldhill from Cambridge University. Professor Goldhill was the first director of CRRASH, the Centre for Research in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cambridge University. During this conversation, a number of key theoretical and practical questions about interdisciplinarity, innovation, collaboration and cross-cultural knowledge production was discussed.

Professor Goldhill starts the talk with his own experiences with the notion of interdisciplinarity. A self-professed practical idealist, Professor Goldhill is adamant in playing his role in the creation of what he views as a great world in terms of academic life. Moving on, the possible ways traditional disciplinarity might actually contribute to our inability to solve such problems was discussed. According to Professor Goldhill, individuals in academia become increasingly focused on ways of working once they begin specializing in a distinct discipline. He also believes that academics are being trained to come to a conclusion and to be descriptive, while in truth, the reality is more complicated. While academics and scholars are trained to describe the complexity of a situation, that description does not necessarily translate into action or some form of practical application, which is where the failings of traditional disciplinarity start to show.

Continuing the conversation, Professor Miller brought up the role of interdisciplinarity in modern education and asked whether interdisciplinarity can be seen as a kind of higher educational reform movement whose outcome might be the restructuring of the traditional taxonomies of knowledge production in the contemporary university? However, Professor Goldhill perceives no value in interdisciplinarity in itself. He sees value in disciplinarity, with its organized and authorized nature. According to him, the very notion of interdisciplinarity speaks to the indispensability of disciplinary knowledge. In his words, “You can’t have an interdisciplinary project between French and engineering, if you can’t speak French and you can’t do engineering.” He discusses the failure of disciplines to be their lack of complete control over any question or the material required for its answer. This is where interdisciplinarity comes in. It is to be used as a tool to open up new ways of forming solutions to such questions. According to Professor Goldhill, interdisciplinarity feeds back into relevant disciplines, whereby academics learn of new ways of knowledge production relevant to their own fields.

This conversation highlighted and shed light on a number of key theoretical and practical questions about interdisciplinarity, innovation, collaboration and cross-cultural knowledge production, for which Professor Goldhill’s insight was crucial.