I am grateful to have been granted access to the Future Initiatives commons, even though I am not taking part in any of the formal face-to-face teaching or learning initiatives that are a part of this project. I stumbled into the FI commons and now I am trying to figure what role it is appropriate for me to play. I am an outsider, but I am convinced that the questions asked and the issues explored in the Futures Initiative are important ones. I do not know that I have answers to any questions, but I certainly feel many resonances of my own thinking with what I have seen of the FI site so far.
One of my major concerns is about the disciplinary structure of knowledge development, knowledge management and, most especially, education, with particular reference to higher education. I think that most of us understand the need for disciplines, for disciplinary rules, for discipline-focused structures in education. But the problem is that many academic aspects of higher education are “sclerotically disciplinized.” It is a question of culture, in the broadest sense of deep-set, unquestioned, highly-ingrained attitudes, expectations, mental models and ways of proceeding. It is a question of formal structures of power and management. Universities construct themselves on a foundation of “departments” that act as silos (of expertise and knowledge) or channels (of allowable epistemic flows). For the most part, tenure-track faculty control departments. And departmental faculty control learning within their channels. Faculty are trained to be disciplinary, to have an almost unthinking respect for the boundary lines of the particular discipline in which they are “experts” — and to avoid crossing those lines. Departments and departmental faculty are structured around thinking within highly prescribed disciplinary channels. The power structures and reward systems of higher education reinforce those channels. Many academics are intellectually reassured and comforted by the way in which their professional lives are organized by these stable, shared, predictable, hyper-familiar disciplinary channels. Unfortunately, the borderlines, rules and limits of disciplines also create blind spots, informational no-go zones and vast swaths of not-knowing. This is not a problem as long as no one challenges the limits of disciplinary channels or asks what’s on the other side of those walls, lines, borders, curtains.
Teachers and scholars whose inquiries press them to wander outside of the prescribed paths are overwhelmingly undersupported. In that fact, we find an evolutionary problem. Disciplinary thinking tends to reproduce itself; the “disciplinized” members of the higher-ed ecosystem tend to undermine and, ultimately, to suppress those exemplars whose inquiries or forms of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination directly question the disciplinary structuring of knowledge and understanding. Now, there are examples of scholars and teachers who have managed to thrive in higher education in spite of this conservative evolutionary bias. However, for the vast majority of faculty at the vast majority of institutions, maintaining a firm scholarly agenda of cross-disciplinary or transdisciplinary inquiry is to risk as being branded as “untenurable.” This is a problem because, de facto, “academic freedom” encompasses the freedom to think within highly prescribed channels, but not the freedom to cut across those channels or to disregard the boundaries.
Inquiry is vital and ought not be so highly bound, so rigidly constrained. The Futures Initiative is a breath of fresh air in this regard.