Cross-Disciplinary Thinking

I'm reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book of essays from the New Yorker. It's excellent. One of the best books I've read this year. I'm typically not big fan of books of columns or articles or essays, but Gladwell is such a talented writer that makes up for it. I actually hadn't read about two-thirds of the essays in the book, since they pre-dated my magazine reading days, and it's nice to re-read some of his best pieces.

(from flickr user santheo)

Gladwell's interview with Time is also pretty interesting, particularly his advice to future journalists.
The issue is not writing. It's what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he's one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He's unique. Most accountants don't write articles, and most journalists don't know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master's in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that's the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.
I'm going to take this one step farther because I don't think the issue isn't confined to journalism. Many academic disciplines seem to be suffering from a lack of cross-disciplinary thinking. Universities have their various departments, and the people in those departments do their own work, typically segregated from everyone else. The philosophers philosophize and the psychologists think about behavior and the economists do calculations about GDP and unemployment and none of them ever really work together to think about how these things interact or whether it even matters.

I know too many people who think they need a degree in some discipline in order to do any work there. Whenever I tell people I'll have a degree in economics soon, I usually hear "well, what are you going to do with that?" Depending on who's asking the question, I might give some canned response, but the real answer is, I could do anything I want.

When people go to get a masters degree or a PhD, yes, they are becoming "specialists" in their discipline, but they're becoming generic specialists if they lock themselves into a way of thinking that's narrow and limited in scope. If disciplinary specialists can open doors to views outside of their immediate world I think they will ultimately be "smarter" in the way that Gladwell describes.


    People really ask you what you're going to do with an economics degree? seriously?


    Daniel, my thoughts on this are that there are, for the purpose of this discussion, essentially two types of degrees: those which have obvious career paths, and those which do not.

    If you have a degree in accounting, it's pretty reasonable that you'll become an accountant. If you have a degree in engineering, you probably want to be an engineer. If you have a degree in middle school education... you get the point.

    But what if you have a degree in something like history? or philosophy? Do you aspire to be a historian? A philosopher? Few do, so it leads to these tedious questions about what you will actually do with such a degree. I think economics falls into the same boat. A tiny fraction of those with undergrad degrees in economics go on to become PhD economists, I certainly have no aspirations to do so myself.


    I studied Art History, and much to everyone's surprise (parents) I am actually gainfully employed as such. I would like to go back for more classwork in Business, though. However, I'm still a fan of Liberal Arts degrees.

    I am also a BIG fan of cross-disciplinary thinking. And if I could go to school anywhere now, it would be at a place that encourages it, such as the New School of Social Research.
    --your friend from Twitter, arthistorygirl

    On November 01, 2009 Anonymous said...

    I might look at Gladwell's new book despite the fact that I am not crazy about the Gladwell phenomenon. I started reading Blink and thought that it was not very good and that it did not provide enough references or in-depth discussions. But mostly I write to tell you that I agree that interdisciplinarity is the key. I actually just came back from a conference where I participated in a panel about promoting interdisciplinarity in Philosophy. I think it is the way to go but it is also extremely difficult as there is only so much time and so many things to learn in one's discipline, let alone other disciplines that might have completely different methodologies. Saludos, Dr. Ortega