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​Emphasizing mathematics in the liberal arts

In light of an upcoming new curriculum, we revisit Duke’s emphasis on a liberal arts education. This curriculum aims to teach us diverse ways to analyze any question and, hopefully, use the answer to better our communities. It is a critical thinking degree. Such an education finds its roots in ancient Rome when the major “arts” included music, astronomy, geometry and arithmetic. In recognizing this, we notice the missing mathematics requirement in our liberal arts curriculum and encourage the implementation of the requirement by weighing its benefits and drawbacks.

The main argument against a curriculum change in this direction is simple: there is no need require students to undertake more work, especially work that may not be applicable for them to thrive in their future jobs. Further, Trinity students already have quantitative studies requirements. However, the justification for a liberal arts education transcends simply gaining factual knowledge to be applied to our future jobs or to be able to do in-depth quantitative analysis. Each of the liberal arts provides a different framework to be applied to problem solving and to gain a new way of considering a particular question. In the same way that logical reasoning skills and not specific passages from Plato are valuable for any future careers, mathematics classes inherently help with the development of similar indispensable skills. Each of these classes provides us with a new lens with which to view the world.

Taking all this into account, we do acknowledge that many students struggle with mathematics. The disparities among students from diverse high school backgrounds contribute to many students struggling in a variety of introductory courses at Duke. However, because mathematical knowledge is cumulative in nature, it often presents a greater obstacle for students who may have lacked strong instruction before coming to Duke. Because many courses in mathematics at Duke require a solid foundation and given the diverse academic backgrounds on campus, it may be difficult to create an accessible mathematics requirement that all students can reasonably complete.

With that being said, we posit that a mathematics requirement would be worthwhile enough to tackle the barriers in accessibility for students on campus. The chemistry and writing departments provide strong models that the mathematics department could emulate. Both departments offer remedial courses, sometimes during summer sessions. Furthermore, strengthening the Academic Resource Center resources could provide support for students struggling in any required mathematics course. Creating a more robust pass/fail system would encourage students to challenge themselves in their undertaking of this requirement with no fear of repercussions. Also, the mathematics department could initiate a wide array of courses, including logic courses, to cater to student interests. There is often the misconception that mathematics is limited to calculus-based courses, but even a cursory glance at Duke’s course offerings shows that this is not the case.

Duke’s liberal arts degree pushes students to “make meaning of complex information, evaluate and discern among competing claims, collaborate as well as compete, engage difference [and] apply knowledge in the service of society.” In line with this mission, a mathematics requirement could open new doors for students. We encourage students to reflect on courses they have taken to fulfill requirements or balance difficult course loads. These courses have probably surprised you. Allow mathematics to expose you to new ways of thinking. Take a chance with the department and it may similarly surprise you.

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