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Polymathy, Interdisciplinarity, and "The World in Ten Curves"

A synthesis of the main points in readings, class discussions, and resulting ruminations. Comments/questions appreciated!

Christina Bosch

on 17 March 2014

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Transcript of Polymathy, Interdisciplinarity, and "The World in Ten Curves"

Given that context, what do we need to learn (and teach)?
The skills that are not (yet) automated or digitized!
How and what do we teach to cultivate
metacognition ?
This last aim includes
interdisciplinary thinking
strategies for and methods of learning
self-directed learning
Cultivate breadth AND depth!

systems thinking

dynamic equilibrium


reductionist thinking

stable equilibrium

Enter the POLYMATH.

Polymaths are people who are EXPERTS in more than one field.
It's not easy! Our intellectual habits, especially in the West, have long tended towards divisive reductionism,
as opposed to holistic, systems-thinking.

In addition, academic and professional discourses are not set up to be transdisciplinary. The boundaries that exist between fields serve to maintain the authority of esoteric experts, exclude novices and dilettantes, and sustain the survival of the field by making it inaccessible to laymen (and therefore requiring interpreters versed in the field's discourse).
Symbols can create communication that supersedes inaccessible discourse. But that's only if what's symbolized is common to typically discrete disciplines. So we need both patterns and symbols to connect interdisciplinary phenomena. Paradoxically, it's as though interdisciplinarity must create it's own discourse.
1. Exponential Curves
Illustrate the law of diminishing returns (economics)
The utility of increasing a lexicon (linguistics)
2. Logarithmic Curves
Illustrate our natural, innate conceptions of numeracy and quantity (mathematics)
The accumulation of executive functioning skills across the lifespan (cognitive science)
3. S-Curves
Explain the hype, boom and bust of some innovations (technology, economics)
Illustrate how societies handle and adopt new ideas (business, psychology)
4. U-Curves
Appear in descriptions of neuroscience findings on mindfulness
and can be used as analogies for how motivation, relationships, and interest progress over time
5. N-Curves
describe per capita income and income inequality (economics)
tissue and muscle optimal function vs. atrophy (anatomy)
6. The Bell Curve has been made famous by statistics and also explains odds in
psychological metrics
7. Poisson Curves
A swell of action at the beginning of an event that decreases as time goes on
Examples abound in every day life as well as in astrophysics, business, music, psychology
8. Cusp Curves
9. Hyperbolic Curves
10. And others!
The point is, SYMBOLS
may be
the best way for
us to think
discourses and
But "being interdisciplinary is so hard to do" (as Stanley Fish says) because our social, cultural, and even economic systems are not equipped with a common language that would facilitate bridges and bonds between fields.
Curves are symbols that illuminate patterns. Regardless of the symbol chosen, a universalizing code that helps identify cross-disciplinary patterns might facilitate more interdisciplinary thinking, and, in turn, more of the innovation and creativity that comes from straddling two spheres of knowledge.
Sometimes, though, you have to wonder...

do these patterns underlie everything latently, waiting to be excavated by the right symbol?
Or are they emerging because you are seeking them out?
We must remember that there are limits to pattern-seeking. Even so, the prospect of getting two cultures to dialogue or even meld into their own new discourse is quite enticing...
...especially when we consider teaching and learning!
Because if human minds are convoluted enough
to come up with all of THIS:
What kinds of futures might more connections create?
First, a basic premise:
In education, we must
This will likely require learners to connect across epistemological cultures...which, as C. P. Snow noted, is an endeavor rife with challenges...
...but absolutely essential for the evolution and vitality of any discipline!
So, for example, in the class Polymathy: The World in Ten Curves, we used curves as symbols for interdisciplinary patterns.
Prezi by Christina Bosch 1/11/13; images used with permission from Google Images; content developed during the Fall 2012 semester at HGSE with Polymathy course students and Charles Fadel
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