Casting itself as a leader in interdisciplinary and problem-oriented education, Duke has spent the last several years rethinking the form and function of its undergraduate offerings. The proposed global health co-major, among other potential and realized curricular changes, reflects Duke’s desire to tap into the excitement and educational possibilities of emerging fields, while signaling a shift away from traditional pedagogies toward more experiential and socially informed learning.
Although we have some concerns about Duke’s enchantment with interdisciplinarity, the global health co-major promises to incorporate learning across disciplines with a comprehensive education in a rich field of study. Adopting the proposed major would not only make Duke the first top 10 university with a major in global health, but it would also give the considerable number of students who pursue global health as a certificate or Program II an opportunity to study the field in a more systematic way. It would capitalize on one of Duke’s strengths and reflect the growing importance of global health as a field.
Moreover, the co-major would incorporate a fieldwork component—an aspect of the public policy major that has seen considerable success—and offer students interested in global health more structure and institutional support as they navigate the field. The major’s capstone requirement, similar to the Bass Connections senior project, reflects the importance of applying knowledge without undervaluing its acquisition and interrogation.
Although we support the major’s creation, the Arts and Sciences Council should clearly state its criteria for determining whether global health should become a major. Duke’s pre-eminence in the field ensures that students will receive an excellent education in global health, but it is not a sufficient justification for the shift from certificate to major. If administrators rely on Duke’s success in a particular discipline as the primary justification for establishing a major in that field, we fear that they will set a dangerous precedent, inviting the University to turn highly specialized fields into major areas of study. In the long run, the proliferation of niche majors may undermine Duke’s commitment to providing undergraduates with a comprehensive liberal arts education.
Some may consider global health to represent a niche field, but the structure of the proposed major limits overspecialization and promotes deep thinking. Although the study of global health may emphasize the practical use of knowledge over its disinterested pursuit, the field has developed a sizeable battery of questions and methodologies that has transformed it from a limited collection of practical concerns into an expansive discipline. Furthermore, the major integrates methods and approaches from a number of disciplines and, because students can only pursue global health as a second major, it forces students to take courses outside of the field.
Although its status as a co-major helps prevent overspecialization, we see no reason why global health should not become a standalone major after its three-year trial period. Several major programs at Duke, such as international comparative studies, draw from a variety of disciplines and methods with success, and we expect global health will do the same.