The Interdisciplinary Tradition

“Interdisciplinary” is a hot term in academic circles these days—recall, if you will, the Mark Taylor’s proposal to reorganize the university around on “zones of inquiry” such as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.” There is a sense in some quarters that disciplinary knowledge is traditional, outdated, and old, while interdisciplinary work is new, forward-thinking, and exciting.

Here is a small bit of family history which offers a corrective to this idea of interdisciplinarity as a new thing: the career of my great-grandfather Abe Pepinsky. I never knew him, but recently came across a draft of his obituary. His academic career spans music, psychology, physics, and education, all in truly meaningful ways: a PhD in physics (psychophysiological acoustics), first violin in the Berlin Philharmonic, teaching graduate proseminars and legions of undergrads in psychology, and so forth. He was also apparently pretty good at the pistol range.

This is a helpful reminder that there’s nothing new or particularly pathbreaking about interdisciplinary research. It’s also, frankly, really humbling to read this life story of a true polymath. I never quite realized, until well into my twenties, that I come from a family that has such a long history in U.S. academia: Ray, Harold, Minnie, Hal, Blake.