Dean of Arts and Sciences Laurie Patton unveiled her vision of the future of the University’s liberal arts program to a crowded room of faculty and students Wednesday.
Although most students attempt to integrate what they are passionate about with their academic coursework, she noted, this often produces anxiety for those who understand the importance of strong career preparation. Integrating one’s specialized knowledge and humanitarian interests into worldly causes pose a sense of “vertigo” for graduates, and the demands of family and financial stability force many to stray from their passions to more conventional career paths.
“What question will you never answer for the rest of your life, but you will never tire of asking?” Patton asked. “No matter where you land and what you do with your life, no matter what your career or what major you choose to focus on, you will always focus on your question.”
In collaboration with her office and the liberal arts departments, Patton said she plans to foster prestige around integration of course paths and to implement a component in every course for students to reflect on how the class relates to the broader world.
She added that exposing students to Duke alumni that changed their career field after graduation would demonstrate the need for interdisciplinary mastery. Students, Patton noted, should see their individual majors as “gateways” to life, not just as a link to their future careers. Students tend to refer to their first major as the “career major” while their second major or minor represented the “passionate major,” she said.
“It is not a question of achievement, it is a question of what we are meant to do with our lives, which is to create value,” Patton said. “My dream would be to have service learning and reflection in every single class—and that would be the Duke signature.”
David Malone, director of the Service Learning Program and an organizer of the event, emphasized the recent uptick in Duke courses that offer service learning components.
“What I am most excited and proud of is the Duke student’s way of thinking about what it means to get a Duke education,” Malone said. “Today is a really exciting time to be a Duke student or faculty member.”
Duke students do not excel in reflecting on their academic experiences and connecting academics to outside efforts, he added.
Senior Benton Wise expressed concerns that the desire of students to meet credentials—such as a high grade point average or an exclusive internship—prevents many from pursuing philanthropy and other non-academic passions.
Patton and Malone acknowledged the problems with the “credentializing culture” that exists at Duke and other top universities as students strive towards success and achievement. Students, thereby, abandon other passions as a result of an overwhelming drive to obtain success, Malone said.
“We are now offering so many options here at Duke that in some ways there are too many choices and students feel the need to do everything in order to be successful,” he noted. “[As a society], we tend to reward academic performance rather than engagement.”
Duke Student Government President Alex Swain, a senior, said she believes Duke has been doing a good job of rewarding out-of-classroom experiences with valid credentials. She noted, however, that there should be more flexibility within the system for students to build their own paths.
Patton agreed with Swain’s proposal and said that making the courses required to fulfill a major more flexible was something she hoped to follow up on in the near future.