Critiquing the Creation of Knowledge in the Liberal Arts: An Interdisciplinary Course on Death
For nearly a decade, I regularly start the semester by asking students in my upper-level interdisciplinary general studies seminar what distinguishes the sciences, social sciences, and humanities from one another. Though they are intelligent soon-to-be-graduates of a fairly selective mid-sized private institution, Elon University in North Carolina, few can offer more than vague ideas of how they differ. Most can identify disciplines that typically fall under the sciences; the majority can situate psychology and sociology in the social sciences, but further categorization of disciplines eludes many of them, as do other distinctions about these areas of the liberal arts such as hallmark methodologies and primary objects of study.
Having significant exposure to disciplines in the liberal arts in conjunction with a primary area of study is a distinctive feature of higher education in the United States. Every spring and fall for at least four years, students throughout the country have to consider fulfilling general education requirements in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. But, for many, maybe most, their general education courses are blank slots to be filled by brief conscripted voyages into less familiar disciplinary waters. They graduate more well rounded, with more breadth of content, not just depth, but few leave with a conscious understanding of how scholarly inquiry is conducted outside of their major and how inquiry in the liberal arts illuminates timeless questions and pressing concerns of humankind. As undergraduates accept their diplomas and exit the stage, they leave with an inchoate awareness of what they have been a part of.
In teaching upper-level interdisciplinary general studies seminars I also have observed that my soon-to-be-graduates struggle mightily when they engage in scholarly thinking themselves. Specifically, they have difficulty forming an intellectual thesis that goes beyond the obvious and supporting it with scholarly evidence, a formidable task. When writing papers or giving presentations, the majority of students unwittingly inhabit the lower realms of epistemological taxonomies. To situate their position in terms of two well-established schemas of educational development, my students are generally more comfortable being asked to recall and comprehend knowledge, the first rungs in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), as opposed to being asked to apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate knowledge, the higher end of this taxonomy. Likewise, my students are more comfortable more passively receiving information, the starting point on Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development (1970), in contrast to committing to a relativistic position, the culminating achievement in this scheme.
Fortunately, students are called upon to reach these upper realms of thought in their major discipline, perhaps many times but particularly in capstone courses, such as senior seminars. The challenge is to do likewise in a capstone general studies course, particularly when such a course is interdisciplinary. However, the extent to which undergraduates can engage in, not simply learn about, interdisciplinarity is uncertain. Some academics who contemplate pedagogical issues, including Howard Gardner, renowned Harvard professor of cognition and education, wonder whether students in undergraduate education have enough disciplinary knowledge to do genuine interdisciplinary thinking (2006, p. 73). In his recent book, Five Minds for the Future, Gardner considers:
“And what of genuine interdisciplinary thought? I consider it a relatively rare achievement, one that awaits mastery of at least the central components of two or more disciplines. In nearly all cases, such an achievement is unlikely before an individual has completed advanced studies” (p. 77).
Arguably, such a level of interdisciplinarity thought is uncommon in faculty members as well. This is why a number of undergraduate interdisciplinary courses introduce students to disciplinary artifacts or objects of study in a complementary manner. Such a course may combine the study of nanotechnology with a related novel, for instance Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan (2003), and readings about the economics of new technologies. This approach has been termed disciplinary juxtaposition (Gardner p. 55), or partial interdiscplinarity “…in which borrowings do not essentially change but enrich the dominant paradigm” (Navakus 2007). The degree of integration and synergy between or among disciplines in such courses rests largely on the extent to which assignments provoke it, a challenging part of designing an interdisciplinary course. It is difficult to foster, as Gardner says “…a powerful interdisciplinary synthesis, let alone original creations” (Gardner, p. 64).
At the same time, the synthesizing mind is one of the “five minds” that Gardner deems essential for the future, and as difficult as interdisciplinarity can be, he goes on to acknowledge its importance at the undergraduate level. To achieve it he proposes multiperspectivalism as an intermediate step to genuine interdisciplinaity saying, “… individuals of most any age or specialization can reasonably be expected to appreciate the complementary strengths of different perspectives” (p.71). What Martha Nussbaum advocates could be considered a kind of multiperspectivalism when she speaks of having students critically examine the academy and how disciplines create knowledge (2000). This kind of critical examination of disciplines is sometimes referred to as critical or conceptual interdisciplinarity. As English professor and my colleague at Elon, Jean Schwind, states, “Critical or conceptual interdisciplinarity intentionally provokes epistemological reflection on the disciplinary structure of knowledge” (2007, p. 6).
Critical or conceptual interdisciplinarity is the approach that my students and I take in the in the seminar I will go on to describe. I designed this course so that course assignments and exams progressively develop students’ thinking along Bloom’s and Perry’s schemas as they learn about and critique methodologies in the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. The course springs from the nexus of my desires for students to make stances and support them and to better understand and appreciate how scholarship in the liberal arts illuminates profound issues and concerns. In the case of this seminar, our focus is on better understanding death.
Perry: Dualism/Received Knowledge
On the first day of the class students are given their final exam question:
Which area of the liberal arts, the sciences, social sciences, or the humanities, best reveals the “truth” about death? Show that you are familiar with the claims and methodology of the other two areas in your answer.
To answer this question students must not only become familiar with each area of the liberal arts, they must also be able to compare and contrast them. Further, it requires them to take a position and support it knowing that other thoughtful and legitimate positions exist in response to the question. Their ability to insightfully reply to this question marks the culmination of our study and the question serves as a reflective touchstone throughout the semester. Preparing them to answer with depth necessitates scaffolding assignments building on what they know while increasing the level of difficulty. We begin, then, in simplest cognitive territory, at the level of comprehension and received knowledge, but with the not so simple material we study in the sciences.
I identify the phenomenal world as science’s object of study and the scientific method as its hallmark methodology. For our focus on death we read excerpts from William R. Clark’s fascinating book A Means to an End: The Biological Basis of Aging and Death (1999). The scientific ideas presented in Clark’s text are complex and for this reason it is fitting for students merely to understand the concepts put forth by Clark rather than attempt more demanding cognitive maneuvers with, what is for them, much new material. In weekly class assignments students learn about the cell cycle, apoptosis, and ground breaking experiments with mayflies and salmon that support the theory of senescence. Matching their ongoing study, the exam question for the sciences is at the lower level of Blooms and Perry’s schemas. It reads:
Your younger sibling, who happens to be a science prodigy, asks you to explain death to her or him from a scientific perspective, in particular from a cellular, molecular perspective. Write her or him a three-page letter that satisfies your sibling’s curiosity and lets me know the depth of your understanding of what we have studied thus far in our seminar.
Students are challenged enough to select the salient points in our reading and restate them in lay terms.
Perry: Relativism/Procedural Knowledge
We segue to the social sciences by discussing how the scientific method has been adopted in this area of the liberal arts and consider the difficulty of random assignment when one’s object of study is human behavior. To learn how empirical research about death is conducted we read summations of Ernest Becker’s (1973) thought who posits, among other ideas, that culture is a collective fabrication of shared beliefs that humans develop to cope with death anxiety. We go on to examine the provocative research done by Pyszcynski (2002), Greenberg (1994), Rosenblatt (1989), and their colleagues in which they conduct innovative experiments to validate Becker’s ideas. Their studies gave birth to a new area of social psychology, Terror Management Theory.
In addition to exposure to quantitative research in the social sciences, we become familiar with ethnographic research by reading the landmark book, On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In the 1960s Dr. Kübler-Ross, along with her interdisciplinary team, conducted extensive interviews with terminally ill patients at a Chicago hospital. After analyzing the resulting transcripts, the team put forth five stages that they found to be characteristic in the mindset of the dying (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). In homework assignments the class examine to what extent the research supports Becker’s ideas and Kübler-Ross’s five stages. At the conclusion of this segment of the course students are given the following exam question:
Briefly describe Terror Management Theory and Kübler-Ross’s theory on stages of facing death (and loss), then analyze the research methods used to support each theory. Do not simply restate the methods, but critically consider them, and/or compare and contrast them. Select information to illustrate the points you are making in your analysis. Lastly, say if one theory is more compelling to you and why.
As you can see, students must state received knowledge, then go beyond it. Analysis of the methodologies requires comparison, providing experience for the more challenging analysis they will do for their final exam. In addition, the last question asks students to make a personally connected, empathetic choice, moving them further upward in Perry’s scheme to a level he called “pre-commitment.” At this point, however, they are not required to justify a choice with anything more than personal reasons.
Perry: Contextual Relativism
The semester concludes with our study of the humanities, the oldest of the liberal arts and the one that I can best represent to students based on my own educational background. I present its methodology as being less quantitative and seemingly less objective than the sciences and social sciences, while emphasizing that this appearance of subjectivity does not mean that scholarly claims are arbitrary or of equal merit. I identify the methodology of the humanities as posing new claims based on analysis, speculation, logic, and reflection with the object of study being ideas themselves, or the representation of ideas, particularly aesthetic representations. The texts for this section of the course have varied but frequently include Donne’s Holy Sonnet X that begins “Death be not proud, though some have called thee …”, Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” paintings, the cult movie classic Harold and Maude, the Pulitzer Prize winning play Wit; by Margaret Edson, and Jon Krackauer’s Into the Wild, a piece of literary non-fiction relating the story of a young man who died in the Alaskan wilderness.
In addition to studying primary texts, we read art history and literary scholarship about them, then engage in similar analysis through assignments and class discussion. When it comes time to take the exam for this segment of the course students do not critique the methodology; they engage in it, albeit in a simple manner. Their exam question reads:
Make one claim about “Holy Sonnet X”, Wit;, Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” paintings, Into the Wild, or Harold and Maude that relates to death, and support your claim with evidence from the text. An “A” answer will have a claim that is not obvious, in other words, a claim that has to be supported with evidence since not everyone would agree with this claim and/or easily see it.
The humanities exam moves the class closer still to writing smart responses for their final. They now have to create meaning and support what they say with reasons. They do not as yet have to evaluate, or in other words, have to make judgments about what is the best claim and then commit to their position knowing that others will reasonably commit to positions different from, and possibly contrary to, their own.
Perry: Committed Relativism
In returning to the final exam question, you will see that students are not only required to engage in evaluation and commitment, they are also called upon to support the position that they take making comparisons in the light of an illusive and contentious concept—truth. In the context of what we have studied about death they must define for themselves what truth means. Shortly before they write their answers we talk about how truth could be defined in other contexts, such as in everyday matters. Also in anticipation of the final, we discuss what it means to take a position and support it with evidence.
On occasion a few students have inquired whether or not they can take the position that all the areas of the liberal arts contribute equally to revealing the truth about death—a fine stance. However, in an effort to keep them from sliding down the rungs of intellectual taxonomies back to mere comprehension and received knowledge, I caution them not to merely reiterate how each area uncovers truth without comparing the areas and without taking a stand. I remind them that they must argue that each areaequallyreveals the truth, as challenging a position to defend as stating that one is superior.
When students do poorly on this exam it is often because in selecting an area that best discloses the truth, their reasoning indicates the choice was motivated by their finding the material in that area the most accessible or enjoyable. Others may not do well because they have not fully grasped the methodology of one or more areas; for example, some have argued that the humanities do not reveal the truth about death because what is put forth is mere opinion, that one scholar’s claim is as good as the next scholar’s.
Those who excel on the final exam have arrived upon a way, or ways, that scholarship unearths truth. They are able to show that they understand methodologies and can compare them, providing examples of how research methods and their subsequent findings shed light on death. In their essays some have argued that the sciences best reveal truth because the scientific method is the most exacting, most inclusive of all life, and its findings are less subject to cultural change. Some have argued that the social sciences best reveal truth because death is a concept that humans alone consciously grapple with; death, therefore, can best be understood by looking at human response to it. Some have argued that the humanities best reveal truth because the disciplines in this area more often acknowledge the soul and contemplate the big, timeless questions. One student argued the truth of death will remain forever mysterious and mystery is best manifested in the humanities.
Students often select an area of the liberal arts that is apart from their majors, sometimes guiltily. To me such a selection is one sign that they are opening up to other ways of thinking. Educational pundit Ernest Boyer states that by examining a subject through multiple disciplinary lenses people develop mental flexibility (p.23). Accompanying that flexibility, I observe them develop an appreciation. Whatever area they select I have yet to read an essay that did not convey positive recognition for the methodologies and findings of the other two. Every student also has been able to distinguish, to some extent, how each area’s methodologies expose truths, even when a student failed to clearly take a position. This is evidence that the course does achieve the “multiperspectivalism,” that Gardner advocates.
The seminar on death that I have described is just one model for a capstone inderdisciplinary course. I have confidence that in using critical/conceptual interdisciplinarity combined with assignments that lead to sophisticated thinking, students will exit their time in higher education knowing more fully what scholarship is, what the academy is, and what it means to take a relativistic stance. This lays the groundwork for genuine interidsicplinarity or transdisciplinarity. Such exposure seems likely to enhance the chances that when graduates are later comforted with complex issues and multifaceted phenomena in their advanced studies, as well as in their professional and personal lives, they will be more open to varying perspectives and more open to having their own perspectives evolve.
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Schwind J. (2007, Summer) Interdisciplinary learning and academic challenge. Retrieved October 24, 2007, from Elon University, Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning Website: UnRTP8LaMJ:org.elon.edu/catl/documents/ID%20and%20challenge.pdf+center+ for+the+advancement+of+teaching+and+learning&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=8&gl=us&ie=UTF-8
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