Researchers in Leicester, UK, have mapped the development of universities
Researchers in the University of Leicester's (UK) School of Museum Studies are proposing a "new type of university" that combines subject specific and interdisciplinary teaching and research.
In a paper published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science Progress, Jenny Walklate and Dr Adair Richards trace the development of universities through the ages and review the merits and drawbacks of traditional ways of working.
Dr Richards observes that students were often forced into studying very narrow subjects early in their careers.
"The answer is not to move to generic problem-solving classes at the expense of specialist knowledge," he said.
"We must develop both deep thinking and broad thinking in our students if we are to successfully combat the complex problems that face us in the 21st Century."
The paper shows how disciplines have flourished since Plato's hierarchical view of a few key subjects and Aristotle's distinguishing between the 'Arts', the 'Practical sciences' and the 'Moral sciences'.
Early universities had a quadririum of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, and a tririum of grammar, rhetoric and logic. By the 12th Century philosophy and science were dominant. Renaissance humanism expanded history and rhetoric.
The Scientific Revolution accelerated a development of sciences to eventually include not just the medieval subjects of astronomy, mathematics, optics and medicine but also separate studies of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, meteorology and psychology.
Observation coupled with exploration expanded knowledge in botany, zoology, geography and cartography as fields independent of 'natural philosophy'.
These new disciplines were forming often, in the UK, in technical colleges and polytechnics outside the university - "an institution many considered almost morbidly bound to the work of the ancients".
The 20th Century added professional and technical studies as disciplines in their own right - a perfect example being the authors' own department of Museum Studies, inaugurated at Leicester in 1966.
Walklate and Richards say disciplines are "important, but not immutable". Discrete disciplines have intellectual and social advantages, depth of inquiry and rigour, and valuable social clusters. But change can be seen as a threat, and their very stability - with "permanent concrete truths" – can be a barrier to progress.
Meanwhile the plethora of subjects whose boundaries often cross has given rise to the concept of interdisciplinarity, which has been debated for over 40 years.
But barriers to working across disciplines include potentially misunderstood terminology, subtlety of meaning being lost, and even different meanings of the same term.
Subjects can have different cultures and styles of working; publications tend to be specialist; career structures are different. Therefore there is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
To overcome these obstacles, the researchers propose 'a third way' in which subject specific and interdisciplinary approaches can benefit from each other.
They envisage "a symbiotic education system” and a “synthetic” academy supporting both specialist study and training and broader approaches to thinking, and which permits the cross-fertilisation of expertise.
This would bring together subject experts and those with the skills and values of interdisciplinarity, to produce "a more balanced and rigorous approach to the expansion of human knowledge".
Walklate and Richards do not claim to have all the solutions. They aim to stimulate critical thought towards "a tolerant academic culture open to dialogue, collaboration, the recognition of commonalities and differences, and, ultimately, respect".