Why interdisciplinary is important
by Vaishnav Kuruvanka
January 8, 2021
In grade school in the United States, we are exposed to six main subjects (Math, Science, English/Literature, Social Sciences, Arts, and Sports). We take a variety of classes in each of these subjects from K-12 and eventually end up at a crossroads forcing us to hone in on a discipline as we embark on our higher education journeys. When we reach college, you see a majority of students having one major, while some dabble in two to three distinct fields of study. We are taught specific skills and gain valuable perspectives in each of these academic areas, but are shocked when we go into the real world. We realize that solutions to complex problems are achieved at the intersection of different disciplines, and very rarely through a one-sided approach. We see intense collaboration between fields that we never formally saw on our college campuses, such as language + math (NLP) and philosophy + economics (ESG).
This piece is about why it is important to develop an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing situations and solving problems.
Peter Thiel says that world-class entrepreneurs are often polymaths. Polymaths are people who are knowledgeable about a wide range of topics and disciplines. Polymaths such as Leonardo DaVinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Elon Musk have revolutionized the world we live in. DaVinci for example was a master in painting, anatomy and physiology, engineering, mathematics, architecture and much more. Benjamin Franklin was a postmaster, inventor, scientist, diplomat, philosopher, writer and more. Elon Musk’s contributions range from the fields of finance to renewable energy to the human brain. These legendary figures are testaments to the fact that man’s quest for progress is tied to mastery of various disciplines. Each various discipline exercises our mind in a different way similar to how different machines at the gym train different muscles.
The arts strengthen our connection to our minds and the natural world through observation and expression. Art as a form is only bound by the imagination of the human mind and spirit. Math and science in many ways is the language of nature. It is our method of understanding the natural phenomena of the world through observation and furthermore, how we as humans can utilize our surroundings to aid human progress. English and literature help us understand how to construct, organize, and communicate our thoughts to the outer world. This develops our ability to translate the abstract activities of the mind into concise, distributable ideas. Words are powerful elements that if arranged in the right way have the power to disseminate knowledge, influence others, and induce deep emotional/spiritual states. The social sciences help us understand how we as individuals fit into the larger scheme of social structures. They force us to think analytically and question the human motives for how we have acted. Lastly, physical activity produces a form of mental resiliency and discipline that calms the mind and makes it flexible. For us to truly understand the world we live in and how to create progress, we must draw inspiration from these different fields. The more we widen our perspective, the better trained our mind will become to connect ideas and invent.
For example, solutions that combat climate change require contributions from the sciences, government, economics, history, and psychology to name a few. Science and engineering will allow us to invent eco-friendly products and analyze their effect on carbon emissions. An understanding of government and history will afford one a better understanding of effective avenues to garner the support of the public sector for these new inventions. An understanding of psychology and economics will provide perspective on how to incentivize society to support these inventions and become invested in the fight to save our planet. Problems such as homelessness, food insecurity, poverty and many of the world’s pressing challenges require interdisciplinary approaches to be sustainably solved.
Beyond training the mind to be capable in a variety of functions, training ourselves in the different disciplines will prepare us for a future that will be more interdisciplinary than ever. To understand how connected our world has and will become, we must observe the trend of innovation. Over the course of the past three decades, we have seen digital technologies lay the foundation for meaningful future applications in almost every major industry. Examples are Uber/Waymo (tech + transportation), Intuitive Surgical (tech + medicine), PayPal/Bitcoin (tech + econ/finance), Tesla (tech + energy), Khan Academy (tech + education) and the list goes on. Applications of technology across various sectors has unlocked massive economic opportunities and shaped the way we live our lives. This trend of increasing interplay between technology and various industries has only begun, making it increasingly important for us to evaluate its consequences and potential for both good and bad. The changes these innovations create must be studied and guided so they produce net positive contributions to our world. For us to place reasonable expectations for and contribute to this form of interplay moving forward, we must increase our base-level understanding of various disciplines. I recommend computer science, philosophy, economics, world history, medicine, music, and energy.
I will conclude with this quote by Leonardo DaVinci: “Realize that everything connects to everything else.”