Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Autonomous Islands or Constellations of Meaning?

There have been some discussions over the last few years about the possibility of interdisciplinary projects at St. Thomas. Sadly, most attempts at cross-curricular work have fallen flat because curricula do not sync up perfectly across disciplines, assessments are notoriously difficult to craft collaboratively due to divergent methodologies and rubrics, and the school culture seems ambivalent towards interdisciplinarity in general at times.

It is not difficult to understand the source of teachers’ misgivings. The educational world is remarkably adroit at repackaging common sense in esoteric terminology which teachers must re-learn (insert sigh) every few years much to their righteous indignation. The wheel can only be reinvented so many times before everyone realizes ad nauseum that it is still the same wheel with a new name and a new salesperson banking on his or her so-called AHA discovery.

Interdisciplinarity is a fine example of the verbal magic I just described. The very utterance of this polysyllabic word seems to get under people’s skins. I sympathize with that feeling, and it is not necessarily interdisciplinarity that I would trumpet or insist upon so much as the liberal arts, its true and genuine predecessor. The liberal arts were traditionally understood to be the seven disciplines (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry) so intimately and integrally linked together as to liberate their pupils. Truth and freedom went hand in hand in the old ancient and medieval mind. Contemporary interdisciplinarity is just a modern iteration of this age old classical and deeply Catholic concept.

I think we can use this Ning interface to overcome the surmountable obstacles that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. We must work on building a new twenty-first century approach to the liberal arts. We need to begin moving toward an epistemic harmony that molds our students into liberal persons capable of self-mastery in the light of a fully integrated truth as our forebears did before us. I think we are far too compartmentalized within our disciplines and sometimes even islands unto ourselves within our departments. We need to reclaim the boldness and ambition to step outside our comfort zones and work with one another in our respective departments and also to link the disciplines for our students. We should strive to unify our disciplines and diverse instructional souls into constellations of light, or patterns of meaning, that are capable of guiding our wayfaring students to the true destination of education, freedom. For at the end of the day, if we don’t connect the dots ourselves and illustrate intellectual and spiritual freedom, how can we ever expect them to do so? Let's start the discussion and move this concept out of the ether and into the classroom.

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