Sunday, September 6, 2015

Academic Disciplines and School Subjects - A brief note

“In education …, novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance,
against a background provided by expectations.”—Thomas Kuhn
The education is in a process of continuous changes. Myriads of changes and challenges are facing the by the scenario. In teacher education, the modern trends favour for emerging of academic disciplines and allied school subjects. The necessity of teachers with proficiency in academic disciplines and professionalism in school subjects are accounted as essential quality of prospective and ongoing teachers.
Teacher education sector seriously focusing on the necessity of emerging academic disciplines. Academic disciplines are in the making in the field. Some sort of new disciplines like ‘curriculum development’, ‘technology of education’; educational sociology and etc are emerged as new disciplines. Hence it is relevant to have a clear understanding on the academic discipline and its various factors by teachers and prospective teachers.
What is Academic Discipline?
            The term academic discipline originates from the Latin words ‘discipulus’ which means ‘pupil’ and ‘disciplina’ which means ‘teaching’. Related to it, there is also the word ‘disciple’ as it is in the ‘disciple of Lord Budha’. The lexicon will give a whole range of quite different meaning of the term; from training to submission to an authority or to the control and self- control of behavior. The term discipline as a verb means training someone to follow a rigorous set of instructions and also imposing and enforcing obedience.
The term academic (scientific) discipline can be defined as the academic studies that focus on a self-imposed limited field of knowledge. It is the subject that one teaches and researches as part of higher education is the academic discipline of that person
It can also be defined as form of specific and rigorous scientific training that will turn out practitioners who have been disciplined by their discipline (subject) for their own good.
Academic Discipline: Special Features
            The term academic discipline becomes a technical term for the organization of learning and the systematic production of new knowledge. Disciplines are identified with taught subjects. But every subject taught at school or at university cannot be called a discipline. There are more to a discipline that the facts and concepts of a subject taught in academic setting. There are many criteria and characteristics which indicate whether a subject a distinct discipline (Biglan, 1973). Some of the essential characteristics of an academic discipline are given below:
1.      Disciplines have a particular object of research (eg: politics, society, human behavior)
2.      Disciplines have a structure  of accumulated specialist knowledge referring to their object of research
3.      Disciplines have theories and concepts that can organize the accumulated specialist knowledge effectively
4.      Disciplines use specific terminologies or specific languages adjusted to their research objects
5.      Disciplines have developed specific research methods according to their specific research requirements.
6.      Disciplines must have some institutional manifestation in the form of subjects taught at colleges or universities. It means a discipline will have academic departments and professional associations connected to it.
All these criteria may not be fulfilled by all disciplines. But an academic discipline must be perfect and should be able to accumulate more knowledge through the process of research. It must be dynamic.
Academic Disciplines: Classifications
Biglan (1973) has developed a classification for disciplines according to the beliefs held about them by the academic members. It most generally divides disciplines into ‘hard’ or ‘paradigmatic’ disciplines and ‘soft’ or ‘pre-paradigmatic disciplines’. Hard disciplines mean they are difficult to transcend. They are developed with certain peculiar academic area and may not be occurred any change from that peculiar areas. Soft disciplines are able to change. They are in the making and give birth to new academic areas. At the same time they will be able to keep their own academic identity.  
Another classification is that pure or theoretical disciplines (eg: Mathematics) and disciplines that engage with ‘living systems’ (eg: zoology) and disciplines that engage with ‘nonliving systems’ (eg: history).
            Tony (1981) classified academic disciplines as rural disciplines and urban disciplines. These classifications are based up on the scope and applicability of the disciplines. He also considered a classification of pure and applied disciplines to explain the functions of the disciplines.
            The details of classification can be clearly read from the given illustration (figure. 1).

Figure 1.         Biglan organized disciplines across three dimensions, as shown, based on their
epistemologies, applicability, and focus on living or never living artifacts.
(Adapted from Biglan, 1973a, 1973b)

Academic Discipline: Some Insights
Academic discipline is vast accumulation of knowledge in a specific area. For eg: History is discipline. It can also consider Medieval Indian History a discipline. Physics is a discipline. Astro- physics is a discipline. Robotics is a discipline.
A discipline incorporates experts, people, projects, communities, students, inquiries, researches and etc that are strongly associated with the given discipline. For Eg: Micro economics or Bio Informatics or Educational Psychology or Human value education.
Individuals associated with academic discipline are referred to as experts or specialists.
Educational institutions originally use the term discipline to list and record the new and expanding bodies of knowledge and informative procedure by the society or community.
In 1980s there have an explosion of academic disciplines such as media studies, journalism, women studies, gender studies, black studies, pollution, oceanic pollution, hospitality management, hotel management and etc.
The Historical Perspective of Academic Discipline
Kenneth (1974) observes that like any other social phenomena academic disciplines do have a history. Every discipline can be analyzed by looking at its historical development. Historians of science can look at the specific historical conditions that led to the foundation of an academic discipline and at how it changed over time, or in other words, its evolution. The historical perspective helps to understand the great continuity of disciplines, but also the points of discontinuity or departure from obsolete practices and ways of thinking. Sometimes this leads to the disappearance of an older discipline and the creation of a new one that can replace it. In other words, the historical perspective captures the great dynamics of the development of science and the academic disciplines.
Historians will generally look for the wider societal context and the overall conditions that influenced the development of a specific discipline, for example the political climate or any particular needs society had at a particular time, as well as internal factors that shaped its development. For example, Julie (1990) has pointed out that the academic discipline was an invention of the late Middle Ages. The term was first applied to three academic areas for which universities had the responsibility of producing trained professionals: theology, law and medicine.  Julie argues that this early disciplining of knowledge was a response to external demands, while the specialization into disciplines that emerged in the 19th century was due to internal reasons.
The historical perspective shows that the development of academic disciplines cannot be understood without reference to historical context. It also helps understanding the evolutionary path taken by specific disciplines. Often new disciplines have been set up to meet particular political and societal needs. For example, Roger (2002) has shown that the social sciences were set up and prospered because of the political need of getting more information on the population, which could be used for more effective government and which helped to stabilise emerging political and societal structures. The new discipline of area studies was set up in the US after the Second World War in order to train ‘area specialists’ who could assist in shaping the increasingly global US foreign policy of the beginning Cold War era. Similarly, new disciplines like computer science and artificial intelligence were closely linked to military applications and prospered because of military funding. Once these new disciplines had been set up they developed a life of their own, possibly freed from their original purpose if they managed to diversify their funding and main stakeholders.
The formation of a new discipline thus requires talented scientists who can take over the burden of intellectual leadership by defining what the new discipline is about and by giving it a clear agenda for research, which can inspire followers. In other words, founding a new discipline needs adventurous pioneers who are willing to leave their original discipline behind and to cover new ground, which always includes a certain risk that they and their new discipline will possibly fail.
This means that practically every new discipline starts off necessarily as an interdisciplinary project that combines elements from some parent discipline(s) with original new elements and insights. Once the discipline is established a new type of researcher is needed. The new discipline needs people who can consolidate it by filling in the gaps left by the pioneers. Without these consolidators and synthesizers a discipline will never develop some stable identity and will eventually go nowhere. So in the consolidation phase disciplines will start restricting too original ideas and will become more and more focused on disciplinary coherence and orthodoxy.
            Education emerged as a discipline through the process of evolution. Education cumulated of knowledge from various perceptive and acquired the status of independency in objective based research.

Biglan Anthony (1973), The Characteristics of subject Matters in Different Academic Areas.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 57. Pp 195-203

Hershey H. Friedman (2001), ‘The Obsolescence of Academic Departments’, Radical Education 6:2, p. 116.
Julie Thompson Klein (1990), Interdisciplinarity/History, Theory, and Practice, Detroit: Wayne
Kenneth T. Grieb (1974), ‘Area Studies and the Traditional Disciplines’, The History Teacher Pedagogy 3:2
Kuhn, Thomas (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Roger Deacon (2002), ‘Truth, Power, and Pedagogy: Michel Foucault on the Rise of the State University Press, p. 20.
Tony Becher (1981), ‘Towards a Definition of Disciplinary Cultures’, Studies in Higher Education

Sankaranaraynanan Paleeri. Ast. Professor, NSS Training College, Ottapalam, Kerala.
Ph: 9447843559. Email:  Blog:

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