WHAT SATYA NADELLA CAN TEACH US ABOUT NEED FOR
MULTIDISCIPLINARY FRAMEWORK TO BROADEN KNOWLEDGE
The old binaries of education need to be revisited,
interconnecting knowledge and people into networks of creativity is fundamental.
By Shiv Vishwanathan
One of the most publicised events
in the last week was the release and
publicity around Satya Nadella's book.
The Microsoft boss appears articulate,
friendly, obsessed with cricket as a
metaphor and as a way of life. Yet,
beyond these much advertised
quotes, Nadella made some intriguing
comments about knowledge.
He talked about the joys and innovative
power of interdisciplinarity.
He quotes another management
guru Barry Hammel, who once observed
that if he has a student doing
mechanical engineering, he would suggest
comparative religion as a second
The need to interconnect knowledge
and people into networks of creativity
is fundamental. Nadella adds
that one needs mindsets to sustain a
multidisciplinary framework and he
emphasises the importance of teamwork.
A team work culture, he suggests,
is the right culture for an
Interdisciplinarity is not an arid collection
of subjects, but the joyful contribution
of people working together.
Nadella cites the example of people
from design, electrical engineering, and
computer science, a multiplicity of disciplines
working together in Microsoft.
The same point was made in a
more insistent way by Amitabh Behar
of Aziz Premji University, who emphasises
the need for new metaphors, new
techniques, new heuristics as a part of
the educational process.
There is a suggestion that the old
binaries of education be revisited, that
a sociologist studying a computer programme
might be able to work out predictive
models of inequality. Behar
suggests that the new global job world
needs combinations like biology with
economics, physics with sociology.
Today, global crises like climate
change demand a synergy of disciplines
to attack it. Photo Reuters
I was wondering how many politicians
and bureaucrats were listening to
these wise words, where one goes beyond
formal skills to aptitudes, where
empathy is seen as a valuable perspective.
Sadly, as people talk of the crisis of
a university, few take interdisciplinarity
seriously. One makes a fetish about specialists
and devalues the humanities. Interdisciplinarity
is an attempt to return
the Renaissance man to the idiot world
of the specialist. One realises today that
global crisis like climate change demand
a synergy of disciplines to attack
One does not see too much of such
interactive thinking, especially in an
India, where climate change is seen as
a political problem to be solved by advanced
is the need of the hour and a
necessity for the future.
It requires firstly a sense of play
as one dreams one's way through a
variety of disciplines, of seeing how
a way of seeing can be a way of not
Second, it is an attempt to see
interconnections. One is reminded of
a lecture by Alfred North Whitehead
the philosopher. He came into his class
at Harvard knocked his head and said
"gentleman I have disturbed a distant
star." Interdisciplinary here is not a clerical
link between two disciplines but a
set of cosmic connections.
It is also a sense of being at one
with the world, of understanding how
one's work merges with nature and becomes
an expression of joy. I remember
George Santayana's last lecture at Harvard.
The philosopher announced his
farewell by saying "Gentleman, I have
a date with Spring."
It is such a joyful cosmic celebration
one needs for inter-disciplinarity to
have a sense of mystery, of the sacred,
to create a pursuit of the whole. In fact
one of the sadnesses of modern scholarship
is that the whole is always less
than the sum of the parts. Probably one
of the greatest advocates of interdisciplinarity
was the polymath Patrick
Geddes in fact dreamt of a city as
an interdisciplinarity entity, a space
where even childhood is an interdisciplinary
space for enjoyment. He
claimed that childhood is a world for
learning crafts, for mastering languages
because it is only through an access to
plural worlds, alternative world views
that one acquires the confidence to connect
Language in this sense becomes
crucial and a multiplicity of languages
gives us access to a range of cosmologies,
world views which makes life
more open-ended. In this context, the
Kannada author UR Ananthamurthy
worried about the standardizing nature
of education today. Ananthamurthy observed
that in India, an illiterate worker
often speaks four to five languages,
while a convent school student is restricted
Interdisciplinarity cannot be a fragmentary
exercise or an aggregative one.
It needs encompassing frameworks.
One has to be self-critical and self-reflexive about one's discipline, understand
In fact many scientific disciplines as
they are taught today lack this sensitivity.
It reminds one of what the physicist
John Ziman once said. Ziman, himself
a fellow of the Royal Society, commented
"a scientist knows as much
about science as a fish about hydrodynamics."
What Ziman meant was that a scientist
because of his expertise has no
sense of the philosophical roots, the social
connectivities of his discipline.
Interdisciplinarity not merely connects
texts from various disciplines but
demands an awareness of contexts. For
example one must also see how a
metaphor which works well in one discipline
may not work with equal success
There is one part of the multi-disciplinary
world that few emphasise. This
is the world of ethics and the varieties
of ethics one must devise to meet the requirements
of complexity, uncertainty
and risk today.
As technology develops and also links
itself to the armaments industry, one
must develop a futuristic interdisciplinary
ethics, an ethics that goes beyond
specialisms and masters a responsibility
for connectivities. Such an experiment
in interdisciplinarity might be one
of the most exciting ways of reviving
university education today.
It is not the information revolution
that we need to understand, but the interdisciplinary
knowledges, demanding new ideas of
connectivity and morality. One wishes
a few universities would become intellectual
panchayats for such experiments.