Simon Tans
Simon Tans

Column Simon Tans: Interdisciplinary Education

When I was younger, I wanted to be a diver. I can't remember why exactly. After that, I wanted to become an archaeologist, I loved dinosaurs. A vacation to Cadzand and a mountain of sprayed-on sand surely had an influence as well. I was quite impressed that the shark teeth I could find there sometimes were millions of years old. During my time at high school, it became a veterinarian, doctor, visual artist and I also checked out the hotel school in Maastricht. In the meantime, my friends assumed I would go off to study philosophy.

It turned out to be law. I still don't know why exactly, but immediately from the first lecture I loved the programme. The construction of a law, a major rule of which, at first, I thought a certain situation could not be solved with, only to later discover that that exact situation was described as an exception to the rule. And as the final part, for a law can't fully capsulate real life, a judge who, in unforeseen circumstances, makes decisions based on fairness and balance. I truly find that judicial arrangement beautiful. 

That is also why teaching freshmen gives me a lot of satisfaction, a student who learns about the nuances of the law, or who starts to realise why every word in a legal text has been carefully chosen. Why a judge's decision might evoke resistance at first and seem ‘ridiculous’ but becomes more logical upon closer inspection. It is interesting to see how students, over time, become convinced of their study programme or, better said, how judicial thinking takes the overhand. 

During study guidance, I often give pupils the example of someone who, during a party, loudly exclaims how a certain government service, that was always the tax authority in my example, had it out for him and sent him ridiculous bills. While the people listening to this person might start nodding, all my judicial alarm bells go off. Lawyers often can't resist taking someone's juicy story and reducing it to an emotionless, perfectly reasonable rule, to the irritation of non-lawyers who just want to tell a story at a party. Clearly, my tax authority example has been adapted these days. 

Teaching students the first discipline, I enjoy that immensely. But, as the study progresses, we become more and more what we study. That is also the intention, but it makes us break down the issues of society into our own discipline. For instance, together with several colleagues from the Faculty of Law and with lecturers from ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, I organised the Design of Justice programme, in which law students and design students jointly developed a courtroom for juvenile criminal cases. The disciplines are quite far apart, and to show such a group each other's field of expertise, in a relatively short time, is certainly a challenge. However, the group was very enthusiastic. Especially when you start to master your own discipline, it is very instructive to work together in an interdisciplinary way. Believe me, even as a lecturer this was a very instructive experience.  

Interdisciplinary education, however, is much more than instructive and useful as an eye-opener for individual students. The need for profound changes in society and the acceleration of society means that academics in a complex and uncertain society will need different skills than before and will have to work much more interdisciplinary. Regarding biodiversity, the International Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) puts it as follows:  

‘Goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.’ 

More specifically, the enormous challenges that our society has been facing for some time, for example creating a truly sustainable society, require cooperation between various disciplines. In order to achieve such cooperation, students must first be trained in the subject matter; a professional can only function in an interdisciplinary way if his own training is sufficiently mastered. During their education, students must be prepared for the need to think beyond the course and the subject.  

What I have seen so far, in my role as theme leader for educational development at the Radboud Teaching and Learning Centre, of interdisciplinary initiatives, I believe, shows that Radboud University is truly turning the call for interdisciplinary education contained in educational visions into concrete lessons. I think this is a good development for students, lecturers and society. 

If you have ideas, suggestions, questions, I'd love to hear them! Send me an e-mail at Simon.tans [at] (Simon[dot]tans[at]ru[dot]nl).

The Radboud Teaching and Learning Centre gives educational innovation a boost with TLC vouchers. Lecturers and students of Radboud University can apply for up to €10,000. See the webpage on the TLC voucher programme for more information. 

Contact information

Simon Tans is Assistant professor International and European Law at the Faculty of Law. He is also theme leader Educational innovation at Radboud Teaching and Learning Centre.