Review of Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century

Oct. 3rd 2017 at 10:10 AM
Categories: Book Reviews

Review of Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century, by Harvery J. Graff.  2015, cloth, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Reviewed by Thomas Hansen, Ph.D.


         This book provides a deep and thorough explanation of how interdisciplinary movements came about in the 20th century with many examples of research, opinions, and movements.  This is a serious and thoughtful book for educators, researchers, and planners who want a firm foundation in how the nature of things interdisciplinary began, changed, and were put to use in education in the USA.  This is a book making available very interesting theories and philosophies of interdisciplinary links—complete with many definitions, examples, and in-depth discussions.  

         This book is not a set of guidelines for writing lesson plans or for mapping out connections across subject areas--but instead is an in-depth discussion, based on several technical essays, showing the comparisons across fields and the contrasts among learning areas for students in higher education.  The book is theoretical, and it is based on the opinions of experts in things inter, cross, and multidisciplinary.  That having been said, an understanding of these technical and advanced topics is essential for educators at all levels.  Teachers and administrators must have a good grasp of how subjects can be combined not just to create new learning areas and knowledge but also to enrich the original learning areas themselves. 

         An example of K-12 programs with a great deal of interdisciplinary emphasis would  by Goals 29 and 30 in the Illinois Learning Standards.  Helping students reinforce their content and skills in areas such as math, health, and science while learning world language structures and vocabulary is the main thrust of those two goals.  Goal 30, especially, assumes educators embrace the importance of teaching students to be able to talk about and perform a variety of activities and grammar from other learning areas.   

         Although the emphasis here is on programs in higher education, both the serious K-12 classroom teacher and curriculum designer should read the book to obtain a better understanding of the theories and movements that impact US education.  It is in American colleges and universities, after all, that teacher candidates select from courses, majors, and minors.  How offerings and programs are designed is based on the theoretical and research sides of the institution of higher education.  It is the job of the K-12 professional to adapt those realities to the needs and outcomes of younger students.

         There are interdisciplinary aspects and connections throughout the Illinois Learning Standards, statements on vocational education, the Common Core Standards, and many if not most local outcomes in Illinois school districts.  For example, we are teaching both reading and cognition when we attempt to address original texts in the social sciences in high school curricula.  Helping students come to understand the difference between textbook language and authentic language is one of the new goals in K-12 standards.  Making them more careful readers and better judges of text reliability impacts also their work to learn how to understand cultures, diverse points of view, and political implications of messages—meaning, clarity in seeing the differences between tolerant explanations of reality and the scripted, “approved” messages being shared by more politically correct organizations or schools of thought.       

         I recommend this serious read for educators at all levels, including teacher educators, professional development experts, and teachers, staff members, administrators, tutors, and volunteers in K-12 schools. The more we can all understand about the underpinnings of interdisciplinary approaches and connections.

         I would require the book in teacher education programs and in topics courses in schools of education, in general.  I would also make use of the book in graduate seminars and in professional development programs with a serious research or historical or writing emphasis.  Knowledge of the theoretical components and background of interdisciplinary programs is important for educators.          


Thomas Hansen, Ph.D., is an Independent Consultant with a variety of roles in Advocacy, Education, and Social Justice.  He is involved in Grant Writing, teaching others to Write Grants, and serving as a Grant Reviewer in federal programs.  He has written well over 100 articles, book reviews, and essays.  He often teaches as an adjunct in nearby colleges and universities.