Short Academy Essay on Interdisciplinary Studies

multi gentium fontplagues and people

Richard Ries

Interdisciplinary Studies 6126

Professor Dwight Kiel

23 February 2013

Multidisciplinary vs. Interdisciplinary: A Look at Plagues and People

            Every now and then, topics and terms in academia become hot. Modernism gave way to postmodernism; criticism conceded to New Criticism. Even globalization spawned glocalization. Two current trends in the Academy are multidisciplinary studies and interdisciplinary studies, the latter of which might be considered the logical solution to the “double major.” Once perhaps frowned upon, seen as a subset of sociology or even scoffed, the Age of Information has provided interdisciplinary studies with legitimacy, as new generations of students and scholars have grown to bridge disciplines previously deemed unbridgeable or found parallels or trends that drudging research before computers would not permit. The monikers “multidisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary” are related, but not interchangeable. The best way to understand how they differ is through one metaphor we can all understand: food.

Multidisciplinary studies may be likened to an Easter Sunday brunch. It might commence with a blessing (theology). The buffet will probably be designed for maximum flow (engineering). The menu might be pleasing to the eye (English, art). The hotel ballroom might be beautiful (architecture, interior design). There might be a carving station of lamb and roast beef (philosophy, math), a salad bar (botany, biology, agriculture), a pasta station (European studies), a wok (Asian studies), fajitas to order (Latin American studies), omelets to order (zoology), a coffee bar (commerce and world trade), a dessert bar (French studies) and likely a carefully placed federal warning to avoid eating undercooked meats (public health). Diners are free to make as many connections of the disciplines during the repast as they choose. But they might also be content to just hear Grace or dine on bread alone.

Interdisciplinary studies is the true fusion cuisine. The Cooking Channel’s Chopped provides the best metaphor available for interdisciplinary studies. Master chefs in Chopped are given a handful of seemingly unconnected foods and flavors (usually four) and told to prepare something innovative (usually in 20 or 30 minutes; the clock is lapsed for the show). The competing chefs open a basket, and might find ostrich breast, bok choy, matzo balls, and Raisinettes. Or they might peer into the basket and discover they must work with pancetta, garbanzo beans, Froot Loops, and bock beer. Most of us would spend our 20 minutes scratching our heads, fumbling around for what to do, make excuses, and come up either empty handed or just put the ingredients on a plate in their discrete forms.

The winning master chef, however, rises to the occasion, sees a challenge, and spots interdisciplinary connections where no one else had seen them before. One chef might create a braised ostrich taco, with shredded bok choy and a Raisinette mole sauce – and turn the matzo balls into a side dish of risotto of sorts with added hints of basil and hot peppers for flavor. Another chef might stir fry pancetta in garlic and beer, and serve chunks of it over boiled beans – and a grind down the Froot Loops for a colorful display that also balances the salt of the Old World meat with some sugar of the New. The interdisciplinarian fuses disparate victuals with élan, and heeds T.S. Eliot’s directive to other budding artists: make it new.

A paragon of interdisciplinary work is William H. McNeill’s monumental Plagues and People. While the mid-70’s work is today somewhat dated (we hunger for chapters on AIDS and SARS; global warming; swarms of killer bees; chronic diseases like obesity as epidemics; non-indigenous snakes and species in Florida; bio-terrorism; and more) the text may be viewed as both synthesis and symphony. History, religion, epidemiology, geography, trade, evolution, civilization, genetics, medicine and far more are all intricately woven together to create an innovative and cogent world view.

McNeill allows us to make connections. He merges data before the phrase was vogue. We learn to view “macroparisitism as civilization” (96) and understand that we co-evolved with animals and pests alike. McNeill posits that “If human numbers increase, the rate of infection also increases.” (23) Though we had always heard of ancient Egyptian physicians, Chinese herbalists, and apothecaries in Romeo and Juliet, we learn that modern medicine practice did not begin to make large-scale difference in life until about 1850. (240) Insights like “most probably all of the distinctive infectious diseases of civilization transferred to human populations from animal herds” (51) are ones to consider when hearing reports of Mad Cow Disease or whence Legionnaire’s Disease. The ancient holy rivers of Hinduism that spread disease in antiquity find their equivalence in the gay bath houses of New York and San Francisco in the 1980s that were eventually shut down as public health problems. In McNeill’s world view, Christianity may have spread in no small part because its teaching stressed healing and care for the sick. “The effect of disastrous epidemic…was to strengthen Christian churches at a time when most other institutions were being discredited.”  (71) As McNeill makes us aware that no less than smallpox was used to reduce Australia’s famous burgeoning rabbit problem (57) we pause to wonder what Al Qaeda might do with a dirty bomb – and question how prepared the CDC and the CIA really are.

Plagues and People deserves a facelift and an upgrade, and the best way for that to happen would be for the president to create a commission and appoint the best scholars available to make recommendations on how to do so and what to include. We have seen other presidential academic commissions come to fruition, as in the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk (1983) created to address our education ills and woes. There is precedent. (And if not the President of the United States, then the Secretary of the United Nations, to commission international scholars and scientists and officials at WHO). With an updated edition, Plagues and Peoples could be seminal, required reading for students of medical and agricultural schools; anyone whose business involves international trade; trainees of agencies like the FBI, the bureau of ATF or the Border Patrol; response teams to catastrophes like Katrina; Peace Corps volunteers; and all those whose life’s work and research furthers our understanding and improvement of this tiny interconnected world we share. There may be no nobler goal than the eradication of the diseases that plague us, but only a global populace that can connect enough interdisciplinary dots will be educated enough to work in tandem to do so.

It takes an interdisciplinary village.

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