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What is interdisciplinary education? 

Economists were well and truly startled when in 2002 the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics was announced: For the first time in history, a psychologist was honoured with the prestigious prize. Daniel Kahneman demonstrated that humans are not as rational as classical economic theory assumed. The Israeli-American Princeton professor identified heuristics, rules of thumb, that help us make decisions but impair our judgement, especially under conditions of uncertainty. What was previously an unheard-of thought has nowadays grown into an important research field that cuts across economics and psychology.

It is also a perfect example of the educational philosophy that drives us a PPLE college: The intricate problems, as well as inspiring innovations, of the present often arise at the intersections of disciplines. So that is exactly where we have to start.  

Since the start of modern universities, roughly a century ago, academic knowledge has grown substantially. Consequently, knowledge and research fields have become highly specialised. The (current) higher education system has followed this trend and is divided neatly into disciplines and departments. While this makes sense within the world of academia, it usually doesn’t in the real world. In the real-world, issues, ideas and problems do not adhere to such academic, disciplinary boundaries.

The most challenging and relevant puzzles and problems arise at the intersections between disciplines: issues such as climate change, the tension between identity and migration, the Covid pandemic, or the epidemic of obesity are not confined to disciplinary boundaries, but rather demand a broader approach. An interdisciplinary study programme aims to connect several disciplines by integrating them together.

This means that learning in an interdisciplinary manner gives you competences such as the ability to

  • relate the jargon and touchstones of one discipline to those of another discipline
  • deal with complexity
  • switch between different disciplinary perspectives
  • easily synthesise and relate knowledge from different disciplines
  • readily cooperate with an expert from another discipline

In today's more flexible and variable job market, companies expect their employees to be able to work in an interdisciplinary team and to combine knowledge from different disciplines. 

Why do we teach interdisciplinarily?

You need legal specialists to write a new law on the liability of a car crash caused by a car on autopilot in the streets of Amsterdam. But would knowledge of Dutch law alone be enough? What about EU-law? And going beyond law, what about the economic consequences? What about the powerplay and relation between governments, car-manufacturers and fin-tech corporations such as insurance companies? Could a good law or good policy come to fruition if the people drawing it were only legal specialists, completely unaware of what the insights Politics, Psychology or Economics have to offer?

What good is a CEO of a bank during the financial crisis if she only thinks of the market as an algorithm? What about the psychology of bankruptcy? How can a judge value an expert witness on probability and DNA proof without a solid foundation in statistics and philosophy? How can journalists fulfil their role in the checks and balances of the democratic process if they have only been taught how to write?

When stepping outside of the university context, one quickly realises that the pressing issues of the present and future cannot be assigned to one academic field or professional specialisation. Specialists are definitely needed and many problems can be addressed through just one discipline, but at PPLE, we would like to offer a broader perspective to those who are interested.

Why have we chosen Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics as the disciplines of our study programme? Well, because they make up the building blocks of society. Politics studies the organisation and distribution of power; how the rules of the game are made and by whom. Law studies how those rules are applied, interpreted, manipulated or upheld. Economics studies the role of money and markets – how rules affect markets and vice versa. Psychology studies how individuals, alone or in groups, make decisions in response to the world around them.

How do we teach interdisciplinarily?

You’re probably thinking: This sounds interesting, but how?

To start, we create a stimulating and personal study environment. Additionally, we’ve designed the curriculum in such a way that your first year will be 100% interdisciplinary. We will analyse societal challenges with the help of multiple perspectives, drawing from what we, at PPLE, find the most essential social sciences. You’ve guessed it: Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics. At the end of your first year you will choose a major from one of the disciplines. From the second year onwards, 50% of your classes will be in the discipline of your choosing and the other 50% will remain interdisciplinary. The opportunity to specialise to some extent provides you with a solid link to a possible Master's programme, while, at the same time, you continue to develop your interdisciplinary thinking skills.

In your major classes, you team up with other students who are specialising in the same major. In core courses, classes on research methods  and PPLE’s integrative seminars, you will join forces with students from other majors. They will bring other perspectives to the class, as will you. In doing so, you as a person and as a group will put interdisciplinarity into practice yourself.

You will be exposed to an interdisciplinary approach in your classes and through the way in which the curriculum has been designed. But it will also have its own dynamic based on your individual approach to it. It will be part of your three-year academic journey. The papers you will write, the discussions with other students, the literature you will read, will all resonate with your own experience so far and lead to new insights. Guaranteed. There are no courses that combine everything - that’s impossible - and there will be no final answers. It’s a puzzle whose result you will only see once you are done. This process demands some intellectual and personal agility, which we find our students to be very capable of!