An Academic House of Cards

Review of

Sustainable Knowledge: A Theory of Interdisciplinarity

New York, NY: Palgrave, 2013, 128 pp.

In his concise and charming book Sustainable Knowledge, University of North Texas philosopher Robert Frodeman challenges us to rethink what we are doing in academia. His central argument is that our academic knowledge-production activities, both in science and in the humanities, are currently unsustainable. Frodeman argues that the disciplinary structure of the academy, which encourages asking questions ad infinitim about ever more narrow topics, has generated a disengagement between the academy and the society that supports it. The academic system demands escalating resources, as the depths of disciplines are plumbed ever further, even as academics find it increasingly difficult to provide a clear rationale for their work. In a world with limited resources, the system is unsustainable. Frodeman’s challenge is to provide an alternative.

He begins with an account of disciplinary knowledge in general, of how the idea of contemporary academic disciplines formed historically and how they developed into today’s fairly dysfunctional academic system. Why dysfunctional? We live in an academic milieu of ever-increasing specialization, of ever-increasing article (and book) production, of seemingly ever-increasing distance between the knowledge needs of the society in which we live and the knowledge academics produce. It is also an academy under intensifying bureaucratic pressure, where faculty are measured against increasingly rigid performance criteria in a rather desperate attempt to show the worth of academic knowledge production, against the backdrop of tighter resources and acknowledged overproduction of graduate students (particularly in the humanities). Nobody is happy about this.

The cure for what ails academia is, for many, to be found in interdisciplinarity. Frodeman, editor of the Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity and former director of the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity (it has since been predictably defunded), is right at home in this territory. He deftly guides us through the movement, including a discussion of the irony of developing a specialized discipline that studies interdisciplinarity. Frodeman recommends against such a move, but acknowledges that the pressure to create silos of expertise—where one can be neatly evaluated by ones’ peers—is difficult to resist. Frodeman argues that we need to push back against the demands for ever-increasing rigor and specialization, and instead seek balance in our knowledge production.

That our knowledge production system is out of balance is hard to dispute. We churn out more and more knowledge disconnected from human problems. The percentage of papers that are rarely cited and little read grows. We produce more students than we can possibly place in jobs that require the expertise we impart. The rubric of infinity, of always having another issue that “needs further research,” the mantra of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, is drowning us.

Sustainable Knowledge Cover Image

Does Frodeman have a life line to throw us? Generally, yes. He argues for knowledge-production systems that aim to be sustainable, that are willing to make the hard choices dictated by limited resources of time, attention, and money. If that is what we need to do for the environment, maybe that is what we need to do to change academia, even with the difficulty of defining precisely what is sustainable. In short, Frodeman is recommending a new way to structure our efforts. He would not dismantle the disciplines, but he would make us more aware of the costs of disciplines, the value of working across disciplines, and the need to engage a broader agenda.

How to do this across all of academia is more than Frodeman can tackle. Appropriately, he sets his sights on his home discipline of philosophy. Here, his vision takes on some teeth. Why do most philosophers write just for other philosophers? Why is the discipline so insular? Frodeman acknowledges that some of his colleagues have tried to break out of the ivory tower, particularly in areas of applied ethics, such as bioethics and environmental ethics. Yet these areas have earned little respect among traditional philosophers. They do not fare well under Frodeman’s critical gaze either. He observes that environmental ethics has failed to gain traction in environmental policymaking, which is dominated by economics. Frodeman suggests it has become too “insular and disciplined” to reach beyond its confines. Bioethics has gained wider traction, but in Frodeman’s view, lost its philosophical soul in the process. The principles of beneficence, autonomy, and justice have become almost dogmatic touchstones that provide disciplinary rigor to bolster bioethicists’ expertise, rather than generating critical insight. Meanwhile, most of the discipline of philosophy just talks to itself.

For Frodeman, the situation is tragi-comic, as the heart of philosophy lies in the possibility of disruptive reflection. Philosophy, at its core, concerns challenging much of the status quo, forcing us to see our accepted practices from a new angle. Philosophers cannot do this when talking primarily to each other, pursuing questions of interest only to other philosophers.

What to do? Frodeman is less dogmatic than pluralist here. In keeping with the theme of balance, he does not want to end disciplinary philosophy, but instead to open it up. He thinks philosophers should try their hand in the field, to get out there and see what happens when philosophical acumen meets the real world. It is an intriguing vision of what philosophy could be, and a challenge that other philosophers are starting to take up. The Public Philosophy Network, the Socially Relevant Philosophy of/in Science & Engineering Consortium, the Stone, the Joint Caucus of Socially Engaged Philosophers and Historians of Science, and the American Philosophical Association Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest all provide testament that some philosophers are already concerned about disciplinary isolation.

Frodeman challenges philosophers to think not just about what makes philosophy good philosophy, but what philosophy could or should be. Philosophers are very happy to think and write about where the discipline should go internally but are less interested in what the field’s relationship should be to the rest of human endeavors, or what responsibilities academia has to the rest of humanity that supports its efforts. It would be downright unphilosophical to ignore the questions he raises.

How might Frodeman’s concerns and attempts at reform play out in the natural and social sciences? Consider that, in the age of the Internet, the information that makes up disciplinary knowledge is widely accessible. In this age of accessibility, what is expertise for? Rather than see it is a repository of knowledge that will grow as disciplines deepen, we could see expertise as essentially synthetic, that the role of the expert is to answer questions about what all the various studies mean for a given question. Under such a view, expertise is no longer a static authority but a dynamic one that demonstrates its usefulness in a process of engaged querying. This is the kind of expertise that could not be replaced by the Internet, that demands long-term cultivation, and that is worth keeping universities around for.

Ventures in sustainable knowledge would thus continue to cultivate expertise, but it would be expertise that moves beyond disciplinary boundaries and the walls of academia. How to do this in practice remains to be seen. Clearly a balance must be struck between the training and development of scholars who have defined expertise and the kind of flexibility that would allow us to pursue what is societally important, given limited resources. Disciplinary expertise is not without value; it is just not the source of limitless value some academics would claim. But such a balance may not be as difficult to find as it first appears, as practically engaged work can provide crucial disciplinary insight as well. As with environmental issues, we should be looking for the win-win solutions.

One might ask what Frodeman thinks he is doing, adding another piece of academic work to the already overwhelming pile. He is well aware of the challenge of trying to make a real contribution to our understanding of the nature of all disciplines. If there is a widely scattered literature on disciplinarity, how can we judge the quality of Frodeman’s work? Can he successfully communicate substance to diverse audiences? This is the main triumph of the work. At the same time that it is compact and accessible to any undergraduate student, it is deeply challenging to our conception of what we are doing as academics. We should thank Frodeman for asking these questions in such a pointed way.

Cite this Article

Douglas, Heather. “An Academic House of Cards.” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 2 (Winter 2015).

Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Winter 2015