In his innovative book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere defines education as an intimate relationship between student, teacher, and society. Learning revolves around discourse - a student is not just “taught”, they are a co-creator of knowledge. For Friere, the essence of education is to empower students with the ability to apply different perspectives and lenses to a subject or issue. This encourages them to break away from individualistic thinking and adopt a holistic approach that fosters critical consciousness.
The focus of post-secondary education in our current context takes a different approach, and fails to provide students with critical consciousness skills. Students, upon selection of their faculty, are educated to become experts in their field. For instance, students enrolled in science gain knowledge and experience in biology, chemistry, and physics. In my personal experience as a student in the Medical Science program at Western University, I have learned a significant amount of lab-based research throughout my three years in the program. I know how to run gel electrophoresis, Polymerase Chain Reaction, and extractions. However,I was not taught how to write an essay, conduct qualitative research, or engage in creative writing - all of which would have strengthened my academic learning. Why was I not taught these skills? Why did the coordinators of my program not feel these skills were necessary for me to learn? I am not just a science student, I love research and advocacy. I work in both the disciplines of healthcare equity and post-secondary education. The skills required in the lab are important to learn, but academic literacy skills are also important. Students need to be well-rounded, they need to have a diverse set of skills relevant and transferable to all disciplines. Although several institutions have taken the initiative to institute graduation requirements mandating students complete courses from outside their primary discipline, it is not enough.
One approach to address this gap in learning is through interdisciplinary study. The principles of interdisciplinary education are born out of a constructivist paradigm which suggests learning and understanding occur through experiences and reflection on those experiences. In the context of post-secondary education, to learn and gain knowledge, students must learn to explore and assess their environment in a variety of different ways. Interdisciplinary study allows students to learn by making connections between ideas and concepts. Students are active participants in their educational journey. They gain transferable skills such as critical thinking, analysis, and communication. The interdisciplinary approach does not simply seek to cross disciplinary boundaries, it also recognizes and celebrates students’ individual differences.
The interdisciplinary approach must be integrated into curricula. Students must not only be exposed to other ways of thinking, but also encouraged to think in a variety of different ways. Students must learn to embrace their curiosity and challenge the status quo. Most importantly, interdisciplinary study must be inclusive of ALL disciplines, rather than relying on strict categorization of subjects such as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
How do we integrate interdisciplinary study into post-secondary education? At the classroom level, it can involve asking questions and applying different lenses of analysis. For instance, when discussing a subject such as climate change, a multitude of perspectives can be applied including environmental, social justice, and economic perspectives. At the university level, curricula must adopt student-centered practices, prioritize discussion over assessment, analysis over definitive answers. At the provincial level, there must be greater investment in the development of interdisciplinary frameworks and protocols to guide post-secondary educators and institutions.
If we can embed interdisciplinary study at all levels of post-secondary education, we can foster greater interdisciplinary thought among our students, which is a pathway to intellectual diversity in our institutions and organizations.
Post-secondary institutions, student bodies, and administrations all strive to foster and support diversity, specifically through the integration of multicultural and ethnic backgrounds. This is very important, however contrary to popular belief, diversity extends beyond race, ethnicity, and religion. Diversity also encompasses a multiplicity of ideas, ways of problem solving, and differing ideological perspectives - this is known as “intellectual diversity”. Intellectual diversity entails recognizing that every individual is unique and possesses a unique way of reasoning, problem solving, and opinions - no two people think alike. Intellectually diverse organizations utilize and celebrate this difference between the way our neurons fire.
In the context of post-secondary education, the experience of one student is different from another; the obstacles an arts and humanities student encounters are different and unique when compared to the obstacles an engineering student encounters. These diverse obstacles and experiences are important for student associations to understand if they are to meaningfully serve the students they represent. To successfully understand and address the needs of all students, student associations must be intellectually diverse. Students from all disciplines should be encouraged to engage and participate in student associations; it is important they share their experience. All voices need to be heard, otherwise a student association will only serve the needs of the majority and will fail to consider or meet the needs of the minority.
How can we foster and promote intellectual diversity in student associations so that they can support the students they represent? It begins with encouraging students from all disciplines to engage with each other and participate in student associations. Jobs and volunteer opportunities should be made accessible to all students. Strong promotional efforts must be made to encourage engagement with students in smaller faculties. Most importantly, students must feel comfortable sharing their experiences and insights.
Ultimately, interdisciplinary study and intellectual diversity are vital components to post-secondary education. They seek to challenge students and organizations, allowing them to benefit individually and better support each other. As Paulo Friere once said “no one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.”