Professor Gary McCulloch

Brian Simon Professor of History of Education



Liberal arts education can be interpreted in terms of disciplinary roots based for example in philosophy, literature, history, psychology and mathematics, and also in relation to its interdisciplinary dimensions. This paper explores the relationship between disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives in liberal arts education. Recent research highlights the compatibility and indeed the symbiotic nature of this relationship. At the same time, the structures of the modern university developed since the nineteenth century appear to reduce the scope for interaction of knowledge formations, and to promote instead academic specialisation. These issues are discussed with particular reference to liberal arts colleges, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the 2016 report produced by the British Academy, Crossing Paths.



I should like to acknowledge the Society for Educational Studies for its generous support of the project ‘The social organisation of educational studies: past, present and future’, and also my colleagues in the project, Gemma Moss, James Thomas, and Steven Cowan. The paper also draws from recent presentations at the University of Oxford, the University of Sheffield, and the British Educational Research Association.





Disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives in liberal arts education


  • Introduction


This paper explores the nature of disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to liberal arts education, with particular reference to the historical experience of the United Kingdom. It also addresses the nature, significance and impact of interdisciplinarity in defining common problems in education in a changing educational, social and political context. These aims raise significant prior issues of definition about what we mean by disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and also about the social construction of ‘liberal arts education’’. They have a great deal of potential for enhancing our understanding of this field – its past, its present and indeed its future – and for promoting its contribution to education and the wider society (see also McCulloch 2012a).

Liberal arts education has developed as a broad field of study that depends both on an interdisciplinary ideal and on disciplinary traditions and practices. Its interdisciplinarity has been cultivated over many centuries and found expression as a hallmark of civilisation, from the philosophers of ancient Greece through the medieval universities of Europe and the humanism of the Renaissance (Grafton and Jardine 1986; Kimball 1986). It signalled a breadth in learning, an overarching unity of mind, that the philosopher R.G. Collingwood argued was characteristic of the medieval world (Collingwood 1924 / 2013). At the same time, the liberal arts also embraced separate areas of knowledge, such as the seven liberal arts that constituted the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (mathematics, geometry and astronomy).


It is important to understand the changing and contested nature of a discipline or of a field such as liberal arts education in relation to its history, that is, in the context of its long-term formation over a number of decades, often reaching back to the development of modern research universities in the nineteenth century. This is demonstrated compellingly in a number of studies, for example in the USA by the respected historian of literacy Harvey J. Graff in his book Undisciplining Knowledge (Graff 2015), a comparative and critical history of interdisciplinary initiatives in the modern university in a range of academic fields

  • Multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity

The academic disciplines, and the departments that housed them, assumed their modern form in universities in the nineteenth century, remaining highly resilient to change in the century that followed (Anderson and Valente 2002). As Andrew Abbott has argued, the disciplines were themselves social structures, based on the organisational form of university departments, that have withstood assault for many years. They provide models, images and social practices of coherent discourses in academia. They also, he suggests, prevent knowledge from becoming too abstract or overwhelming, and thus provide a specific tradition or heritage that can be built on (Abbott 2002). This is an issue that is also taken up by the cultural historian Peter Burke (Burke 2012, especially chapter 6), who points out that Auguste Comte coined the term ‘specialisation’ in the mid-nineteenth century, while a new wave of specialised learned journals in the late nineteenth century accompanied the separation of disciplines and departments.

Christie and Maton have complained that the disciplines, despite their longevity and familiarity, are unappreciated for their enduring value and too little understood in terms of their theoretical and sociological characteristics (Christie and Maton 2011; see also Jacobs 2013). In the UK, Becher and Parry have also emphasised the endurance of the disciplines. They argue that a discipline has both a cognitive and a social aspect. Social factors include incorporation in a typical academic organisation with the provision of courses from the undergraduate stage to an advanced level; a shared set of cultural values; and recognition by the academy at large, Indeed, they insist, ‘Only when a scholarly community is deemed intellectually acceptable by its peers, is it qualified to achieve disciplinary status.’ (Becher and Parry 2005, p. 134). Nevertheless, disciplines themselves are not stable or unchanging entities, but are in constant change and flux.

At the same time, the nature of interdisciplinarity has attracted increasing attention over the past few decades. Differentiating between multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity has occupied much of this activity. In the 1970s, Hugh Petrie defined the key difference between these approaches in the following terms

The line is not hard and fast, but roughly it is that multidisciplinary

projects simply require everyone to do his or her own thing with

little or no necessity for any one participant to be aware

of any other participant’s work. Perhaps a project director

or manager is needed to glue the final product together, but

the pieces are fairly clearly of disciplinary size and shape.

Interdisciplinary efforts, on the other hand, require more or

less integration and even modification of the disciplinary

subcontributions while the inquiry is proceeding. Different

participants need to take into account the contributions of

their colleagues in order to make their own contribution (Petrie 1976, p. 9).

More recent analyses have largely maintained this basic distinction. For example, one of the leading theorists in this area is the American scholar Julie Thompson Klein, whose 1990 volume Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory and Practice (Klein 1990) set the tone for much detailed work. According to Klein, a subtle restructuring of knowledge has produced new divisions of intellectual labour, collaborative research, team teaching, hybrid fields comparative studies, increased borrowing across disciplines, and new pressures on the traditional divisions of knowledge. All of these trends, she argues, have encouraged a trend towards unity, synthesis and convergence, and the growth of ‘interdisciplinarity’.

The British political scientist Wyn Grant has also analysed this general development, He explores the intellectual and practical challenges involved in working across disciplines, especially in teams and in ‘thick’ interdisciplinary work across the social and natural sciences, but points out the potential rewards in terms of understanding and responding to the large urgent problems of today such as the environment and climate change (Greaves and Grant 2010). Both Klein and Grant emphasise, moreover, that interdisciplinarity does not necessarily replace the disciplines but indeed depends on disciplinary knowledge for its further development (see also Weingart 2010).

Further discussions have assessed the nature of boundary work around and across the disciplines. Klein has suggested that impermeable boundaries are associated with tightly-knit, convergent communities, indicating the stability and coherence of intellectual fields such as the physical sciences and economics, while permeable boundaries are more characteristic of loosely-knit, divergent academic groups, signalling a more fragmented, less stable, comparatively open-ended structure like sociology. She also points out that some fields of knowledge are hybrid in nature, including child development, cognitive science, women’s studies, biopolitics and criminology (Klein 1993). The potential for interaction between and among the disciplines is frequently emphasised. For example, Jan Parker suggests that higher education curricula in the humanities need to build on both core disciplinary and supra-disciplinary texts, as well as ‘texts which both inculcate and question interdisciplinarity, preparing students to work in interdisciplinary collaborations’ (Parker 2008, p. 264). The sociologist Neil Smelser insists, moreover, that the boundaries of most disciplines have become so permeable and indistinct, and so much exportation and importation has occurred that if one ranges widely in his or her discipline, one is being in effect interdisciplinary.’ (Smelser 2003, p. 653). These ideas are taken further in new work by Richard Thaler on the making of behavioural economics over the past half-century (Thaler 2015).

Harvey Graff’s key point is that disciplinary and multi-disciplinary approaches are not fundamentally in opposition to interdisciplinary collaboration, but have a symbiotic relationship with interdisciplinarity. He suggests that the humanities have tended to assert their interdisciplinarity in order to achieve greater recognition and status, but have failed to recognise, admit or probe their relationships with the separate disciplines that they embody (Graff 2015, p. 55). It is indeed the symbiosis between the multi-disciplinarity and the interdisciplinarity of the humanities that provides their distinctive mission. The same may be argued for liberal arts education.

  • The case of liberal arts education


The debates around interdisciplinarity and the disciplines in relation to liberal arts education have taken many forms over the past century. These have been shaped by the structures of the modern research university. The contested character of the liberal arts colleges, originating in the United States, provide one example. The nature of cultural studies, for example as developed at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in England, are another case. Their contemporary resonance in the 21st century is highlighted in the British Academy report Crossing Paths, published in 2016.

In the nineteenth century, the modern research university became firmly established, first in Germany and the USA and then in the UK. Disciplines became institutionalised in the form of separate university faculties, institutes or departments. The University of Berlin, founded in 1810, was initially organised into the four faculties of philosophy, theology, law and medicine, but gradually diversified into institutes in different subjects (Burke 2012, p. 168). The key period was 1868-1914, as the new disciplines competed for academic recognition and status within the academy. Specialist journals and societies were also founded in rapid succession in Germany (Ruegg 2003). In the USA, departments began to diversify in the new universities that were being established. Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins University, founded as the first research university in the US in 1876, announced at his inauguration that the criterion for choosing professors would be their devotion to a particular line of study and their eminence in that speciality (Burke 2012, p. 169). In the UK, the civic universities of Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester became established towards the end of the 19th century, while specialised academic subjects became institutionalised even at the traditional universities of Oxford and Cambridge (McCulloch and Cowan 2018, pp. 13-14).

The liberal arts colleges in the US, drawing on the tradition established by Harvard College from 1636, found it difficult to maintain their position in an era of specialisation. These colleges, providing a broad four-year undergraduate degree programme, themselves responded to this situation in a range of ways that highlighted the unresolved tensions around interdisciplinary and disciplinary approaches to the curriculum. The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), in a review of interdisciplinary undergraduate education in 2015, suggested that ‘Interdisciplinary innovations and traditional academic disciplines both thrive at America’s independent colleges and universities and cannot be considered completely apart from each other.’ (CAC 2015, p. 1). It noted many innovations in interdisciplinary curricula in a high proportion of colleges, with some of the stimulus for this coming from faculty members whose research interests had pushed them to the boundaries of their disciplines (CIC 2015, p. 3), despite significant barriers to interdisciplinary work such as the nature of research training and incentives in favour of disciplinary research and teaching.

Some commentators have doubts about the future prospects of the liberal arts colleges (see e.g. Koblik and Graubard 2017). Others are more optimistic, and indeed the basic model has recently been imitated in other parts of the world such as East Asia (e.g. Jung et al 2016). Different visions of future developments have been expressed by college leaders. For example, Wendy Hill, provost of Lafayette College, argues that these colleges are well positioned to foster interdisciplinary approaches, with a balance of teaching, learning and research, and are evolving towards a more integrative model (Hill 2014). On the other hand, David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, enthuses about the interactions at play between analysis and synthesis, or ‘breaking down and putting together’. He argues that the educational system is built around the process of analysis, breaking something complex into smaller and smaller subdivisions. Synthesis, he suggests, is less actively encourages and rewarded, but is required in addressing the important problems of today such as poverty, climate change and religious tolerance (Oxtoby 2013). In his time at Pomona College from 2003 to 2017, Oxtoby presided over many interdisciplinary projects that often blended the arts and sciences, but also emphasised the importance of the disciplines themselves (Oxtoby 2017).

‘Cultural studies’ has been a closely related field of study closely related to the liberal arts. In the UK, CCCS at the University of Birmingham was the most well known initiative of this type, from its origins in 1964 until its closure in 2002. CCCS was an avowedly interdisciplinary project from the beginning, and encountered both opportunities and challenges as a direct result of this. On the one hand, it provided a unique forum for academics, students and interested colleagues from different backgrounds to address common themes and issues. On the other, as it complained, it confronted ‘the boundaries between disciplines, the division of labour of intellectual work, the awkward problem of relevance and action which flow from truly critical knowledge, the protocols of good academic manners, and the defence of institutional boundaries’ (CCCS 1971). In 1975 it set up an education sub-group, led by Richard Johnson, and this produced a number of interdisciplinary works including Unpopular Education (CCCS 1981). It also harboured transdisciplinary ambitions from a Marxist stance, involving itself in the student protests of the late 1960s and broad educational campaigns in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, it struggled to survive in the changing political climate of the 1980s and the departmental culture of the academy and was closed in 2002 (see also McCulloch 2014; McCulloch and Cowan 2018, chapter 7).

At the same time, it should be recognised that CCCS’s work also had significant bases in the disciplines, and could well be seen as symbiotic in the relationship between interdisciplinarity and disciplinarity. Two of its principal leaders, Stuart Hall and Richard Johnson, were thoroughly grounded in their respective disciplines. Sociology in Hall’s case and history in the case of Johnson. Hall gained widespread acknowledgement for his sociological expertise, and indeed when he left CCCS in 1979 it was to become a professor of sociology at the Open University. Johnson studied history at the University of Cambridge, and his PhD thesis was a conventional work of economic history, but he became enthused by the new social history of the 1960s. He rebelled against the orthodoxies of his home discipline of history, to cultivate a more interdisciplinary outlook with CCCS, but was still informed by established historical methods. In the US, Graff also recognises these tensions within the discipline of history, highlighting the trend to draw on sociological concepts and to construct a ‘historical social science’ (Graff 2015, p. 163).

In the 21st century, these historical trends have taken a new turn as a number of key agencies have called for greater recognition of the importance of interdisciplinarity. One such was a report commissioned by the British Academy in 2016 entitled Crossing Paths (British Academy 2016). This report, produced by a working group led by Professor David Soskice, insisted that there was a ‘deep need to take active steps to promote interdisciplinarity’ (British Academy 2016, p. 5). While maintaining vigorous disciplines, it urged, interdisciplinary research was ‘central to academic innovation, leading to new sub-disciplines both within and across existing disciplines’ (British Academy 2016, p. 5). Liberal arts education was an area of study where interdisciplinary approaches had tended to take centre stage, but where the disciplines also merited continued attention along with the need to develop greater appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between the disciplines and interdisciplinarity.

  • Conclusions


This paper has highlighted the changing and contested set of relationships involving liberal arts education, interdisciplinarity and the disciplines through this brief historical review. It has proposed and attempted to demonstrate that a critical historical approach is well suited to such an examination. These tensions seem likely to continue into the future albeit in a broader context that is continuing to change rapidly.

There is scope for a great deal of further research to deepen our historical understanding of liberal arts education. The social and historical experiences of the journals, societies, centres, conferences, projects and other spaces and places in this field still await detailed treatment. The role of what Klein has described as ‘interdisciplinary individuals’ in pursuing an interdisciplinary agenda within a broadly multidisciplinary context is a further key issue for detailed analysis (Klein 1990). And finally, increased comparative, international, transnational and cross cultural awareness is likely to extend still further our collective engagement with liberal arts education as a familiar but elusive and much contested field of study.




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