One might think that philosophers have an in-built reason to celebrate interdisciplinarity. After all, many of us do philosophy of x, where x is science, or language, or mind or some other object of study to which one more disciplines that is not philosophy is also directed. As a philosopher of mind, for example, what I do counts as part of an interdisciplinary endeavor called cognitive science that includes psychologists, biologists, linguists, computer scientists, etc. In addition, philosophers take themselves to be an a position to ask and consider questions that particular disciplines can't answer, for either principled or practical reasons. For example, neuroscientists take for granted that in studying the brain they are thereby studying the mind. All this is to the good.
However, interdisciplinarity is not an unalloyed good. Indeed, there is a trend towards interdisciplinarity that I will call anti-disciplinarity: a trend towards rejecting the value of expertise, the value of pursuits with a history, the value of collective intellectual pursuits that transcend spatial and temporal boundaries.
My worries about anti-disciplinarity have to do with our larger conversations about the purposes of higher education and the centrality of student learning. I break my worries into two concerns: first, the role of anti-disciplinarity in the deprofessionalization of higher education; second, the effects of anti-disciplinarity on student learning.
Why are administrations so eager about and interested in so-called interdisiplinarity? One explanation may be just that it is a new buzz-word or concept that is required to look like a viable candidate for a position as an Associate Dean, Dean, Provost, President, etc. Another explanation is that some simply view interdisciplinarity as a good thing. Another, compatible, explanation is that it is in the fiscal interest of the higher educational industry to deprofessionalize the workforce. In this latter guise, interdisciplinarity is really just a stand-in for anti-disciplinarity. If there are no disciplines, no experts, no actual set of practices by which scholars and teachers ought to be evaluated, then faculty are simply so many movable pieces, whose credentials stand for nothing other than an antiquated mode of identification. There is no reason to pay faculty as professionals, for they have no profession. There is no reason to hire faculty in permanent positions, for there are no permanent questions, no permanent pursuits, no common projects that require anything other a generic person to teach generic courses.
What about the effects of anti-disciplinarity on student learning? There are the immediate practical effects of an itinerant faculty: student learning is best pursued over time through long-standing mentor-mentee relationships. But there is a less immediate but very real effect that I am beginning to see in my own students: they believe that pursuing a topic, question, issue, puzzle, problem, etc. consists in a very broad, very superficial sense of the territory and does not require expertise. It does not require discipline. In addition, they believe that a topic, question, issue, puzzle, problem, etc, can only be treated at this very generic, superficial level. But part of the joy of being a scholar is that one may contribute to and connect with a much larger field of inquiry by working very diligently on one part of it. I should add that there is here a built-in incentive towards anti-disciplinarity for our students, especially when it is being touted by the institution: diligently working away on a technical and challenging portion of a long-standing problem is more difficult and time-consuming than painting broad, elliptical impressions about impermanent worries. Most importantly, students learn when they are asked to go through the paces of disciplining the mind towards a focused, collective effort. When students are asked to participate in the gestures of anti-disciplinary activity, they are asked to participate in a collective illusion that masquerades as student learning.
Should we resist interdisciplinarity? How may we do so as faculty, as scholars and as teachers? Is there a way to celebrate true interdisciplinarity without being complicit in the deprofessionalization of higher education and the substitution of appealing and illusory forms of entertainment for real student learning?