Why we should embrace interdisciplinary thinking


Sydney Wuu

A Webbie’s belongings are piled on a desk: chemistry textbook, math notebook, and five library books.

Some people know exactly what they want to pursue to make an impact on the world and how to get there. Some people crunch complex integrals and L’Hôpital’s rule in their sleep, while others dominate the debate arena and elevate Harkness discussions with ease. Some dream of the day their NYC fashion school acceptance letter arrives, while others strive to become a collegiate, and eventually professional, athlete.

In this hyper-competitive day and age, a well-rounded v.s. spike dilemma emerges as high school students grapple with pinpointing their strengths and weaknesses. Our own self-imposed labels eventually raise a key question as we transition into the workplace: is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?

Webb’s jump from its underclassman core system to its emphasis on upperclassmen electives may seem daunting for a sixteen-year-old to navigate on their own. Do we continue along the generalized, more well-rounded route or choose a specialized track? 

Examples of upperclassman specialization at Webb include dropping an elective or humanities class to double in mathematics or science. The new flexibility in their course selection encourages every type of rising junior to follow their passion, whether it be STEM, humanities, or a broad-based interdisciplinary combination of both.

But do our passions really fit our institution? Are we following paths that are projected for us, or paving new ones on our own? I believe that a well-rounded education system will best prepare us to face the world with a wide range of skill sets. My personal course load is relatively balanced–three humanities, two maths, and one science–but here are two of my friends’ stories who clearly are passionate about a particular subject.

Jenna Zhao (‘20) is tripling Advanced Studies humanities: AdvSt. LA Literary Culture, AdvSt. Age of Enlightenment, and AdvSt. Human Migration. Her dream is to become a professor of philosophy at a university one day. 

Andrea Phung (‘20), a STEM-oriented VWS senior, is tripling Advanced Studies sciences: AdvSt. Organic Chemistry, AdvSt. Experimental Physics, and AdvSt. Museum Research. Her dream is to become an orthopedic surgeon at a hospital one day.

Personally, I am more along the lines of a generalist. While some people like Jenna and Andrea focus intently on a single academic discipline, I have always seen the world through multiple lenses. I love biology, but I also am intrigued by international relations and business. I love sports, but am also passionate about music and student government. 

My dream is to combine areas I’m passionate about one day by perhaps becoming an executive officer at a biotech firm. For me, it is extremely hard to choose one field to specialize in when I could continue to explore so many of my passions. 

Often, blending generalism with perfectionism can induce feeling like a jack-of-all-trades, forcing interdisciplinarians to battle the imposter syndrome that follows. For much of my life, I have tackled my extracurriculars and studies through a fog of self-doubt, never feeling quite ‘good enough’ in anything I have tried to do. This unhealthy mindset would manifest itself in binge-watching YouTube videos of two-year-old prodigies performing Mozart concertos at Carnegie Hall and television interviews with nationally-ranked junior tennis stars. But my perspective transformed as I gained more maturity and confidence in my strengths.

Over time, I have come to embrace my multifacetedness through perceiving high school and college as opportunities to grapple with balancing my passions with my talents. Ultimately, I have used the past 3.25 years to try new activities, branch out, and explore skills I could potentially use in a career. I may not know all the answers to life, but I am okay with it. I have embraced my interdisciplinary identity.