Very tight boxes

Let’s suppose that it is possible to collectively agree a set of threshold concepts which define and bound a discipline. Is this a good thing?

If through an education we learn to think like a economist/philosopher/artist/etc – indeed we become a economist/philosopher/artist/etc – will this limit our perspective so that we can only think like a economist/philosopher/artist/etc. As such, will be deny ourselves the opportunity to make new connections between disciplines and in doing so create different ways of imagining the world? In essence, are we creating dogma?

Probably not. For example, the concept of evolution, which was developed in the natural sciences has at least as many applications in other disciplines. I don’t think that understanding it qualifies me as a natural scientist makes any more than it bars me from understanding the sociological concept of surplus value. I suspect that there a several threshold concepts that exist across or outside the taxonomy of disciplines that we have developed.

For example, in some of the workshops that I teach I use an exercise to demonstrate the nature of consent. I ask everyone to stand up. I ask everyone to sit down. I then ask them why they did as I asked (to date, no one has ever refused to stand up or sit down). When prompted, students will say ‘Because you told me to’ or ‘Because you are the teacher’ or ‘Because I didn’t want to offend you’. The point of the exercise is both to demonstrate how easy it can be to get people to do what you say (in the right circumstances), and that we should always reserve the right to question why someone is asking us to do something? It was a revelation to me when I realised this, and I think it bears all of the markings of a threshold concept, but I don’t think that it belongs to any subject area.

Perhaps part of the enthusiasm for threshold concepts is that it serves to reinforce the boundaries between disciplines and makes everyone feel that little bit more special about the choices they’ve made and who they are. For me, I think that the notion of threshold concepts have made a valuable contribution to the debate, but that the importance of marking ourselves out as one thing or another is questionable. As indeed is my commands to stand up. You can sit down now.

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