The notion of learning communities needs to be deepened through an analysis of institutions and how they function. If we are going to create a new model for learning, then it will have to stand the test of organizational restructuring and disciplinary redefinition. The latter will not be accomplished unless we take a long and hard look at the informal learning that is a part of everyone’s daily existence. The disciplines that have been the bedrock of education must incorporate the lessons of the informal into their purview. For example, the study of language and composition should not take place outside of the experience of popular culture. The study of the sciences cannot be divorced from ethical and philosophical issues.
If we are to take the effort seriously, then the creation of new learning communities will bring with it a transformation of what we mean by disciplines. For better or for worse, the very nature of disciplines, their function and their role within and outside of institutions has changed. The context for this change is not just the individual nature or history of one or other discipline. Rather, the social and cultural conditions for the creation and communication of ideas, artifacts, knowledge and information have been completely altered. From my point of view, this transformation has been extremely positive. It has resulted in the formation of new disciplines and new approaches to comprehending the very complex nature of Western and non-Western societies. We are still a long way from developing a holistic understanding of the implications of this transformation.
It is an irony that one of the most important of the physical sciences relating to the brain, neuroscience, has become a combination of anatomy, physiology, chemistry, biology, pharmacology and genetics with a profound concern for culture, ethics and social context. Genetics itself makes use of many different disciplines to achieve its aims. To survive in the 21st century the neurosciences will have to link all of their parts even further and bring genetics, the environment, and the socio-cultural context together in order to develop more complex models of mind. It may well be the case that no amount of research will produce a grand theory. But, as the great neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has suggested, the most puzzling aspect of our existence is that we can ask questions about the physical and psychological nature of the brain and the mind. And we do this as if we can somehow step outside of the parameters of our own physiology and see into consciousness. Whatever the merits of this type of research, it cannot avoid the necessity of integration.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of the disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Although there has been an explosion of research and writing in the conjoining areas of Cultural Studies, Communications and Information Technologies, the various specializations that underlie these areas remain limited in their approach to the challenges of interdisciplinarity and learning. The reasons for this are complex. Among the most important, is the orientation that some of these disciplines follow and that is to develop their own language and culture of research and practical applications. The difficulty is that, as they grow more specialized, they cease to see or even envisage the potential connections that they have to other areas. They also disconnect themselves from the educational context that is after all a context of communications and exchange.
Most importantly, the research agendas in all disciplines will have to incorporate new approaches to culture and to the fundamental importance of popular and traditional cultures in creating the terrain for learning at all levels. This will be a huge challenge, but it is the most basic one if we are to create the conditions for learning communities and learning societies.