In November of last year, Reinhard Hütter, professor of Christian theology at the Divinity School, wrote an article in First Things advocating for undergraduate theological study at research universities.

Lamenting the segmentation and commoditization of many modern university curricula, Hütter argues that “all academic disciplines in the late-modern research university have become servile arts, and the university an accidental agglomeration of advanced research competencies gathered in one facility for the sake of managerial and logistical convenience.”
To counter this trend and restore to academic institutions a more universal, liberal arts education, Hütter suggests the study of theology, “the Science of God, or the truths we know about God put into system.” We heartily concur with Hütter’s diagnoses of the malaise that plagues modern universities, but propose a modified, expanded version of his prescription.

On previous occasions, we have voiced our displeasure with the increasingly vocational nature of university education. In the same vein as Hütter, we would like universities to re-emphasize learning and knowledge as ends in themselves, rather than as mere means to a vocational goal. To this end, we propose a new curricular requirement focused on philosophical inquiry, broadly understood, to be introduced concurrently with the reformation of the Trinity curriculum, which is likely to occur once the new Provost takes office. We recommend that Duke create a mandatory freshman class that explores the basics of philosophical inquiry and require students to take, as a part of their major, a class that addresses epistemological questions related to their field. To be clear, we do not suggest that a new requirement be added to the current system—as doing so would unduly burden students—but simply that such a requirement ought to form a central part of a new undergraduate curriculum.

Having a general philosophical foundation is invaluable for students seeking a liberal education. Specifically, a basic understanding of epistemology, the study of knowledge and its acquisition, can be supremely beneficial to academic study in all other disciplines. The freshman course we propose would, for this reason, incorporate theology’s interest in epistemology, but not its belief commitments.

In putting students on common intellectual ground, a philosophy requirement would facilitate the interdisciplinary interactions that Duke strives to promote. It would give students a base from which to pursue their interests and a way to exchange ideas across disciplines with their peers.

Furthermore, a secondary class related to one’s major would encourage the sort of introspection and philosophical reflection that characterizes high quality academic work. Such a course would focus on the methodologies by which particular disciplines produce knowledge and discover truth, while addressing the implications and limitations of those methodologies. For example, an epistemology course relating to the hard sciences would examine how empirical research generates knowledge, while seeking the limits of experimentation and inductive reasoning. The course would raise questions that transcend a specific discipline and force students to contemplate the central questions of human existence.

Through our two-pronged approach, we believe that students will be better equipped to tackle their particular majors, work across disciplines and contextualize their studies in a field of knowledge that is uniquely and universally human.