The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 3 : September – December 1996 [Feature]
The call for interdisciplinary curriculum and research on environment and development issues is familiar to the point of being a cliché, nevertheless it remains largely an unfulfilled ambition, and a fringe activity within the mainstream of universities worldwide. There are many important reasons for this, including concerns over the lack of rigor, as well as structural barriers such as tenure and promotion criteria, external funding priorities, and the intellectual and financial interests of discipline-based departments within universities.
As with many of the concepts associated with sustainable development, “interdisciplinary curriculum and research” can become a slogan, thus masking the formidable philosophical, conceptual, and institutional problems inherent to integrating disciplinary theories and methods. Moreover, as a form of academic jargon, it can also reduce the search for holistic or integrated understanding to a set of technical problems that separate values, knowledge and skills. In this sense, the term interdisciplinary could be more of a problem than a solution.
While the notion of interdisciplinary knowledge and skills strikes an intuitive chord with policy makers, faculty, researchers, and students interested in solving environment and development problems, it remains a confusing objective. To begin with, the language is awkward and unclear. Interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary are often used interchangeably. For some, the concept is constituted by collaboration between any two disciplines, while for others it must integrate two classes of knowledge, such as the sciences and humanities or biophysical and social sciences. There are others still that advocate a transcendental-like notion of interdisciplinarity which has its own experts and literature.
This linguistic confusion reflects a deeper set of conceptual and organizational constraints to integrating islands of knowledge and facts, and reconciling them with ingnorance and uncertainty. These constraints relate in part to the question: Can disciplines be integrated and remain disciplines? If the answer to that question is no, then how far will the international academic community pursue integration?
It also reflects a tension between professional standards of legitimacy within academia and the relevance of curriculum and research to social needs. Balancing the standard of rigor-often assumed to be discipline-based and achievable only through application of the scientific method-with that of relevance or utility in improving quality of life by solving social problems that do not conform to disciplinary models is difficult and contentious to say the least. This tension goes right to the heart of the responsibilities and mission of higher education in the search for sustainable development.
Whatever else can be said of sustainable development, it is not about knowledge for knowledge sake or the perpetuation of the status quo. It is an ideal to be realized through purposeful intervention into social processes to solve pressing problems and avoid future ones. Even a cursory review of the emerging international regimes linked to sustainable development, including Agenda 21 and the Biodiversity and Climate Change conventions, makes clear the fact that sustainable development contemplates nothing less than a willful collective action to change the course of contemporary history.
The recommendations resulting from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo offer an important example. By viewing population in an integrated way, the ICPD Programme of Action articulates a goal of reforming the global economy to serve social development and protection of the poor, and in particular, women. This contrasts sharply with the goal of achieving demographic targets through the distribution of contraceptive services that has characterized earlier international approaches. The international community moved from the pursuit of demographic targets to global economic reform by recognizing the interdependence of consumption, production patterns, economic development, demographics, and ecosystem health. A narrow, but apparently manageable, technical and quantitative focus was thus supplanted by a broad, apparently unmanageable, qualitative, and political focus. While the broader goal of subjugating the global economy to ethical guidelines clearly relies on the availability of contraceptive services, its objective of empowerment is markedly divergent to that of demographic targets.
In terms of higher education, it could be argued that our current approach is designed to serve, and in fact spawned, the narrow and apparently manageable technical ends and means approach of dealing with population growth and environmental degradation.
The culture of specialization, in effect, abdicates if not eschews any responsibility for constructing an ethical consensus across the numerous political, institutional, cultural, and economic boundaries that criss-cross the global economy.
Reflecting on the role of higher education, if we construe the problem of environmental degradation as simply a matter of overpopulation, then universities can produce specialists to devise technical interventions aimed at achieving demographic targets. On the other hand, if the problem is a culture of greed and institutionalized environmental incompetence on an international scale, then higher education’s role is quite different.
Socially and ecologically responsive curricula and research do not have to compromise the pursuit of knowledge. On the contrary, successful examples demonstrate that by articulating a common goal, specialized knowledge of many disciplines is contextualized, and the whole person is engaged in the learning process-this is sound pedagogy. What also emerges from these examples, is that their objectives and outcomes are more accurately described as “holistic” and “integrated” rather than “interdisciplinary.”
Environmental literacy requires that we build bridges that connect the individual disciplines and departments to the challenge of defining and realizing sustainable development. If we assume that the power of holistic thinking is that it makes clear how single disciplines, and the professions they underpin, both aggravate problems and contribute to their solution, then “interdisciplinary” curriculum and research is an essential first step toward holistic understanding. By ensuring that students clearly understand these connections, they can build the ethical and technical skills to contribute to sustainable development in their professional and civic lives.