The emphasis on interdisciplinary learning is unique among schools today, many of which are dictated to by their textbooks and a curriculum that compartmentalizes knowledge. Each subject is presented as though it exists in a vacuum, never influencing or being influenced by anything else. This compartmentalization of knowledge denies students the opportunity to make connections across topics and to see the world the way it really is, in all its beauty and complexity.
A liberal education is a well-rounded education because it does not compartmentalize knowledge but seeks to cultivate in students an appreciation for the wholeness of truth. In the words of John Henry Newman, a nineteenth century preacher and Oxford intellectual, “all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator … [The disciplines] complete, correct, balance each other.” Therefore, subjects or disciplines should be studied as a whole, not as separate bodies of knowledge that have nothing to do with one another.
The completion of a well-rounded liberal education cultivates a well-rounded individual who is better able to see God as the Creator of all things and God’s creation as the source of all knowledge. As a school in the classical liberal arts tradition, the Academy believes that pursuit of truth always begins with a sense of wonder, and that students can love to learn what is true, good, and beautiful through a joyful discovery of the world around them.
The various disciplines exist to provide a different perspective or angle on the truth. Truths learned in a science class and a literature class do not contradict each other, but rather provide varied perspectives when correctly taught.
Dr. Dan Russ, 9th grade Humane Letters teacher and curriculum consultant, is working with the leadership team and faculty this year to revisit our curriculum and ensure that it reflects the interrelated nature of all the disciplines we teach. He says, “Disciplines are artificial. We can only get at the truth from angles. The reason we’ve created this artifice is because there are various ways we view the truth. Since few of us are geniuses, we are inclined to view the world from our particular lens. We should understand that we teachers need to be integrating our curriculum, so students don’t mistakenly think that there isn’t a universal truth behind all of the scientific or historical truths they are learning.” For example, “A teacher who is teaching the Enlightenment might draw in a science teacher to say ‘Here is what the scientific method was in the seventeenth century, and here’s how it evolved over time.’” The science teacher can answer questions about the scientific method that the history teacher may not be able to. This helps students to not only have a better understanding of the scientific method, but to see how what they are learning in history relates to their science class. Hopefully, they will begin to see all their studies in a new light, where learning becomes an adventure filled with intriguing connections.
Integrating connections across subjects needs to remain at the forefront of our curriculum planning. Dr. Russ is working with Dr. Claudia MacMillan to look for these connections in our curriculum. Dr. Macmillan is a curriculum consultant and the founder of the MacMillan Institute, which teaches the educational philosophy of Drs. Donald and Louise Cowan. Dr. Russ says, “We’re listening for resonances horizontally and vertically throughout the curriculum.” Horizontally, across the disciplines a student studies, and vertically, through the grade levels. Dr. Russ compared curriculum to “a musical score played by an orchestra. Musicians must all play from it the score. It doesn’t mean that curriculum cannot be changed, but if it is changed, it must through conversation and in harmony with the faculty as a whole.”
According to recent studies, teachers are some of the most isolated professionals, sometimes going an entire day without talking to a peer. Keeping a curriculum strong with an interdisciplinary focus requires the faculty to prioritize community. “If you are going to be committed to community, then the school needs to structure in time for the faculty to work together on refining the curriculum.” Dr. MacMillan will guide the faculty in cultivating the vision for and practice of being an intellectual community.
Dr. MacMillan emphasizes the importance of stories as the most basic way that we learn and build an academic community. She sees the poetic imagination as the foundation of liberal education. As Dr. Russ explains, “We all need the ability to imagine in our discipline. Most of the best breakthroughs in science have been by people who could first imagine something and then prove it.” Dr. MacMillan will encourage us to imagine together, exercising our poetic imagination as a group and in our unique disciplines.
By following a concerted approach to curriculum development and teaching, we make learning better for both students and teachers. Finding opportunities for integration between subjects in the younger grades prepares for deeper and more discerning thinking. Building community among faculty will help this integration to happen more naturally and show the students the wonder and joy of experiencing their education as a map to the fulfillment of their lives.