Interdisciplinarity: Tony Judt

August 9, 2010

With interest and sadness, I read various obituaries of Tony Judt, Professor of History at NYU and public intellectual, who died Friday of Lou Gerig’s disease at age 62  The obituary from The Guardian is here, the one from The New York Times is here, and the one from The Wall Street Journal is here.

I was struck in the Times obituary by something he said about interdisciplinarity, one of the central challenges in fashioning a curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences today.  Most liberal arts and sciences curricula are organized around two dozen disciplines, but we are all increasingly seeking ways to make our programs of study more interdisciplinary.

“A historian has to be an anthropologist, also has to be a philosopher, also has to be a moralist, also has to understand the economics of the period he is writing about,” said Judt.  “Though they are often arbitrary, disciplinary boundaries certainly exist.  Nevertheless, the historian has to learn to transcend them in order to write intelligently.” “A moralist:” that’s the most surprising entry in that list, but I think he’s right to include it.  One of the reasons we need to think in more interdisciplinary ways is to achieve a moral point of view, a perspective, a large understanding that helps us think through how we are to live our lives.

I’ll be having students read an essay of Judt’s in my public policy course this fall, “What is living and what what is dead in social democracy?

The Times also quoted Judt as saying “A well-organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves.”  I don’t know whether we can expect that of societies, but we can expect it of one another.

He was intellectually courageous, and I admired him for that.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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