Last Wednesday, Dean of Arts and Sciences Laurie Patton outlined her vision for the Duke undergraduate liberal arts education, in which Duke students would seamlessly integrate many diverse interests into a single course of study, driven more by the weaving together of flexible and intersecting passions than the accumulation of discrete credentials. We support Patton’s emphasis on integration but believe integration must be practiced in measure. Integration, practiced without moderation or thoughtfulness, may create an overly customizable choose-your-own-adventure approach to education where students integrate various interests before—and at the expense of—gaining a solid foundation in the academic discipline of their choice. In order for meaningful integrative learning to take place, Duke needs to solidify its intradisciplinary curriculum before working towards the interdisciplinary goals Patton has articulated.
The undergraduate education is broken into three rough phases. The first phase is pre-major exploration, in which students collect information about various fields they may be interested, ultimately ending in the declaration of a major field of study. After major declaration, students begin specializing, firmly establishing proficiency in the premises and methodologies of their respective fields. The third phase—where we believe true integrated learning lies—is applying the tools from their major to problems connected to but outside of their major. But the quality of integrated learning in the third phase depends crucially on the quality of foundational learning in the second phase, and we hope Patton remains highly cognizant of this fact.
Too many students graduate from Duke without understanding the basic underpinnings of their major field of study. In other words, they never fully digest their discipline’s core or canon, its basic principles and the nature of its inquiries. Disturbingly, these students never attain any fluency in the parlance of their major, the language that the main practitioners use to tackle relevant questions. That is why, for example, some students in upper-level English electives lack basic tools of textual analysis. In the quest for interdisciplinary and personalized education, students start to lack a shared intellectual foundation with their peers, particularly in the humanities. By not preserving the integrity of specialization, interdisciplinarity also suffers as students have no intellectual home base to speak from.
Only after achieving a certain mastery of their major can students genuinely explore how other disciplines might be integrated into their intellectual life. In this third phase of the undergraduate education, Duke students flex their academic muscles—trained through rigorous study within their major—to apply force to problems outside of their major. Without any serious attempt at specialization first, students attempting integrated learning are more likely to be wandering dilettantes, bereft of any practiced methods. Patton has a sizeable task ahead of her: Strengthening knowledge within the major while encouraging integration with intellectual projects outside of the major. It is a charge that may seem difficult and even contradictory at times, but one that is crucial to Patton’s goal of integrated learning. If the liberal arts curriculum is supposed to be more than the sum of its parts, the requisite parts—including, most importantly, one’s major—must first be sound themselves. In tomorrow’s editorial, we attempt to provide some more concrete strategies to that end.