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Learning without boundaries

The Hindu | October 31, 2015
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The education system in India is now beginning to see that interdisciplinary studies is what is required to solve challenging problems.

After decades of adopting specialisation as the way forward, the education system in India is now beginning to see that interdisciplinary studies is what is required to solve challenging problems. Be it climate change or computational biology in the natural sciences; gender studies or development economics in the social sciences or even financial management or international relations in the management sector, the complexity of situations we see in real life demands that problem-solvers cultivate knowledge and skills that cut across disciplines. This comes as a challenge to our education system, where most schools stress on discipline-based division of lessons and even notebooks. Yet the trend has already set in and the IISERs, several new central universities, State universities like Ambedkar University, Delhi, and private players such as Ashoka University and FLAME University, to name but a few, are focusing on giving a boost to interdisciplinary education.

While the need for interdisciplinary studies is obvious, the how, when and wherefores of implementing this are neither obvious nor easy. Universities offer the major-minor structure where the student can take up as a major subject the stream in which he or she wishes to specialise in and minor in something lateral that interests him or her. One of the newest universities to have come up, FLAME University offers as many as 150 major-minor undergraduate combinations.

This is a major step forward, because the student can choose a social science subject to major in and a physical science subject to minor in. This being a relatively new effort, FLAME might, in fact, be doing a great service in bridging the gap between social sciences and the so-called natural sciences.

“My niece who learnt ballet dancing, understood the meaning of balance when she studied physics and maths,” says Dr Sujata Patel, who is a professor in the Department of Sociology of University of Hyderabad. While agreeing that there should always be interdisciplinary and even cross-disciplinary approach to education, she also says that it should not be at the expense of disciplines. According to her perspective, the undergraduate courses should encourage interdisciplinary studies, the postgraduate be more discipline-based and the ensuing PhDs would tackle complex problems. “You have to be strong in the discipline, so that you can actually cross the boundaries successfully,” she says.


In the meantime, universities are trying to make this effective. Floating fully residential courses, following innovative curriculums, making sports mandatory and so on. At FLAME University, for instance, there are two programmes aimed at this end — development activity and the discover India programme. In the former, students intern at NGOs of their interest to learn about development. In the latter, small groups of students are taken to the place, it could be a village or city, of their choice and learn about the industries there, the traditional modes of living and so on.

Ambedkar University Delhi offers several such interdisciplinary courses at the master’s and undergraduate level. One such course is the Master’s in Environment and Development.

“Students can choose elective courses in a way that allows them to specialise in broad areas like ecology and conservation biology, conservation and livelihoods, urban ecology, environmental management etc,” says Dr Asmita Kabra who is the Dean (Officiating), School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University Delhi. Further, since the faculty teams consist of scholars trained in diverse disciplines, there is a natural tendency for interdisciplinary approaches to emerge.

What would be the benefits of studying such a course at the PG level? “The MAED programme expects students to graduate with the knowledge and skills necessary to analyse and address environmental concerns keeping in mind social equity, academic rigour and ecological sustainability. The School of Human Ecology promotes field-based teaching and field research, which connects theory with praxis,” says Dr Kabra. Being a State university, about 85 per cent of seats are reserved for students from within Delhi State.

It comes to mind, as Dr Patel reminisces, that subjects like Sociology or Biochemistry were originally thought of as interdisciplinary areas, but these have now themselves solidified into independent disciplines.

The same could very well happen of some of the areas studied in an interdisciplinary approach today. But that is a matter for the future, and for now, it is important to recognise that the most creative interventions in society can be made, either through a job or research, by taking inspiration from different streams.

This is really the method advised by most scholars to approach real-world problems, and the sooner our educational system adapts to it, the better!

(Source: http://www.thehindu.com/features/education/college-and-university/learning-without-boundaries/article7826727.ece)