Ours is an age of specialization, in society and culture, and in education and research. Such specialization unfortunately results in fragmented knowledge, and prevents ideas from cross-pollinating. Thus, the walls between ‘science’ and ‘social science’ prevent an integrated perspective on consciousness in humans, chimpanzees, and fruitflies; and on social patterns in humans, ants, and bacteria. It also prevents the emergence of trans-disciplinary theories, such as a theory of evolution that unifies physical, biological, and cultural evolution. Educational programs continue to reproduce our fragmentation among our students, by packaging information and skills in baskets like ‘physics’, ‘chemistry’, ‘biology’, ‘sociology’, and ‘history’.
Countering such fragmentation needs a trans-disciplinary perspective of knowledge and inquiry. Trans-disciplinarity goes beyond both inter-disciplinarity and multi-disciplinarity. ‘Inter-disciplinary’ refers to the intersection between two disciplines, such as bio-chemistry (biology and chemistry), socio-biology (sociology and biology), and mathematical linguistics (mathematics and linguistics). ‘Multi-disciplinary’ refers to the investigation of a question from the vantage points of multiple disciplines, as in the case of protein folding that draws on math, chemistry, computer science, and biology; or the problem of consciousness that draws on math, philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology.
‘Trans-disciplinary’ refers to a level of knowledge and inquiry at which concepts and abilities are not restricted to any particular discipline or discipline group; at this level, disciplinary boundaries cease to exist. For instance, we have the discipline-specific concepts of atomic structure (physics), molecular structure (chemistry), protein structure (molecular biology), skeletal structure (organismic biology), sentence structure (linguistics), organizational structure (management studies), social structure (sociology), and the structure of a sonnet (literary studies). But the concept of structure itself is a trans-disciplinary one. The concepts of transformation and symmetry in mathematics, homology in biology, variations of a melody in music, and metaphor in poetry are underlyingly the same at a trans-disciplinary level. Other such trans-disciplinary concepts include system, function, category, change, correlation and causation, and so on.
Turning to abilities, the ability to solve calculus problems is a discipline-specific ability. So is the ability to design randomized control trials to evaluate social programs. But the ability to solve problems, to engage in experiment design or in statistical thinking, and to construct and evaluate theories, are trans-disciplinary abilities.
The idea of this trans-disciplinarity of concepts and of abilities is not automatically accessible to learners. If we want our students to make connections across ideas, to move freely across disciplinary boundaries, if we want them to be creative and innovative by drawing upon diverse domains of knowledge, then it is crucial that we have a trans-disciplinary approach in curricula.