This is hardly the question! Experience and time has convinced me of the value of using an interdisciplinary approach to studying and teaching. (I really struggle with the education jargon “integrated study.”) After over a decade of collaboration with one of my English colleagues I have no doubt that a well-executed interdisciplinary course generates more enthusiasm and produces more benefits for high school students than any isolated mono-subject experience. Without a doubt my conclusions reflect a bias based on the nature of history (by definition an interdisciplinary discipline) and the joyful collaboration with my great friend and colleague.
Yet as I contemplate the current wave of enthusiasm for “integrated studies” I find myself pausing like Po’s narrator in “The Raven”. Something is tapping at my door. The rapping seems to come from the twin specters of Social Studies and Mediocrity. Having been trained as a historian, the idea of social studies for students in an academically rigorous independent school is anathema. Students need to be challenged by the historian’s attention to asking high quality questions about specific moments in the past and seeking to tell the story behind those questions with meticulous attention to sources and details. Social Studies functions at a level of generalization which has little to do with the understanding people in their own time and space and how they did or did not change over time. It is an appropriate introduction to the world for younger students, but hardly hones the critical thinking skills that more mature students destined for academic sojourns at major universities need. The fact that the National Council for History Education is fighting so diligently to establish and keep real history courses in schools is a testament to the slippery slope social studies has been.
Mediocrity often arrives in tandem with courses which are based largely on generalization and taught by instructors not steeped in a specific discipline. My high school world history course was taught by a fully certified social studies teacher whose degree was in psychology. Needless to say, I learned very little about history, very little about critical thinking, and nothing about how historians work. Without a well-established background in both methodology and sources instructors cannot help their students increase and improve their intellectual prowess across a wide variety of subject areas.
So why are the dark twins sitting and tapping on the ledge of my consciousness as I stare at proposals for an interdisciplinary course? First, my experience is based on teaching an interdisciplinary course which had both an English scholar and a trained historian in the same classroom. This model allowed for constant movement between the disciplines and forced students to encounter texts, issues, and problems through two different lenses. In addition, students were constantly challenged to use both lenses because neither instructor allowed the other to ignore salient topics or use imprecise methods and language when engaging the material. No document was ever “just” a story or “just” a political tract; it was always both, and always unique.
Second, few schools have the resources to place two faculty members in a single classroom across the entire curriculum. The demand this model places on resources is prohibitive. Thus, the road toward integrated studies must negotiate the issue of one teacher in the classroom trying to be well-versed in two disciplines. The odds are that very few instructors have double majors. Are there detours around this problem? Indeed, but the reality is that once the class begins and the period gains momentum who among us will not gravitate (if not flee headlong) toward emphasizing the topics and methodologies we know best? This is a recepie for mediocrity. I shudder at the thought of my students relying on me to teach them how to analyze a complex piece of poetry.
So what to do? If historians do not have the requisite training for teaching math and English teachers are not prepared to teach history how do we bring the students to a richer and more complex learning environment?