Knowledge knows no boundaries

Learning across disciplines can help you broaden your perspectives.

February 08, 2015 04:00 pm | Updated 04:11 pm IST

The disciplinary boundaries between the arts and sciences are set in stone in most Indian colleges, both literally and metaphorically. The pure sciences and related disciplines like microbiology, electronics and nanotechnology are typically housed in a separate building from departments like English, history and journalism. Once a student opts for a particular stream, he can bid farewell to studying subjects offered by the other. Very few colleges in India offer programmes that allow students to transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries between the Arts and Sciences. And due to this narrow, streamlined mindset, many students hold misconceptions about a liberal arts education, even when they are applying to foreign universities.

Broaden perspectives

Students who are inclined towards the sciences and related fields tend to eschew applying for programmes that offer a Liberal Arts education. However, the rationale for this decision is misplaced as one can avail of an excellent science education in a liberal arts college. What liberal arts entails is that a student takes courses across multiple disciplines while specialising or majoring in a subject of one’s choice. Thus, a student can major in chemistry but has to take a prerequisite number of courses across an array of disciplines ranging from anthropology to women’s studies, to philosophy.


“But what is the point of taking courses unrelated to my field?” a student may rightly ask. This question is more likely to be posed by someone who is certain of her choice of subject. For example, Pavitra is quite certain she wants to do a Ph.D. in particle physics in the long term. “Why,” she asks, “must I endure tracts of Shakespeare and Marx when I disliked English and economics in school?” A person who harbours such strong sentiments is indeed likely to benefit from a broader and more rounded education precisely because she is so set in her views. I am not disputing the fact that Pavitra likes some subjects over others; her views may only intensify after she takes a mandatory English or philosophy or psychology course.

But as an undergraduate, she is still too young to necessarily know or understand the breadth and scope of fields and the undergraduate years are an excellent time to sample what different fields have to offer. Often, content covered in school is of a rather basic nature and a student may not really get a grip on what a field entails unless she studies it at a more advanced level. While it is not possible for any student to take courses in all disciplines, sampling a broader variety of courses can guide youngsters towards a path that is more akin to their interests.

Different dimensions

Furthermore, studying courses across disciplines can help you view your own subject from a new lens. When I was in high school, I disliked biology. What I didn’t know at that time was that I probably did not like the subject because I had three different teachers teaching it in the span of a year. As a result, I did not opt for biology in classes XI and XII, and chose electronics instead. However, once I got to college and pursued psychology, I realised that I was more drawn towards biology than I had initially thought. When studying how the mind works and why people behave in certain ways, I realised that an understanding of the brain was essential.

Thus, when I started reading about the brain as a college student, I experienced a twinge of regret for having given up on biology too soon.

Moreover, disciplinary boundaries are not as opaque or rigid as we are normally led to believe. After all, knowledge knows no boundaries. Fields that differ substantively from another, may actually use one another’s methods. For example, Matthew Jockers, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska, relies on digital tools to analyse trends, themes and patterns in literary tomes. He relies on algorithms to sieve through texts. Likewise, the interdisciplinary field of neuroeconomics uses the methods and tools of neuroscience, psychology and behavioral economics to understand how humans make economic decisions.

Thus, while students of the humanities may benefit from taking courses in Science, the scientists may also expand their view of the universe through the prism of historians, biographers and philosophers. In his biography of the eminent scientist, American writer Walter Isaacson writes that Einstein was asked by the New York State Education Department about what schools should give importance to, and he replied by saying that students should learn history, especially how influential thinkers shaped the course of humanity.

Branch out

So what do you do if you are enrolled in an undergraduate programme that does not allow students to take courses across disciplines? In order to expand the frontiers of your mind, you may read a wide variety of books not related to your field of study. Further, you do not have to opt for dry, academic books, but can choose from an array of popular non-fiction books to get an insight into the kinds of questions studied in various fields. In almost every discipline, there are an abundant number of books written for laypersons by experts that avoid unnecessary technical jargon.

These books are generally easy to comprehend and can give you a flavour of what questions a field asks and the methods it adopts to study them. If your curiosity is piqued by a particular idea, you can always delve further.

Edward Ray, President, Oregon State University, describes the results of a national survey of American employers in The Huffington Post. Ninety-three per cent of surveyed employers felt that a candidate’s undergraduate specialisation was less relevant than his or her ability “to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.” And taking courses across disciplines or at least reading widely can help students see and seek more distant horizons.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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