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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 subject.


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 interdisciplinary group.

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 it.

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 economies. Interdisciplinarity 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 seeing.

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.

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 disciplines.

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 to one.


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 its limits.

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 in another.

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 revolution connecting knowledges, demanding new ideas of connectivity and morality. One wishes a few universities would become intellectual panchayats for such experiments.


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