Stocker: Emphasizing interdisciplinary study and academic rigor at Northwestern


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

As the end of my Northwestern undergraduate career rapidly approaches, I find myself frequently reflecting on my college education. I honestly believe I have learned and grown a lot here at NU, through my courses, extracurricular involvements, friendships, work and internships. Lately my thoughts tend to focus on my courses; what in particular have I learned from completing majors in history and economics?

I believe I have learned the most when connecting topics discussed in my economics courses to those in my history courses. In my experience, the value of my education has increased over time, as the material from courses builds on each other.

The problem with many of NU’s majors, minors and distribution requirements is that their existing structures do not necessarily facilitate this building of knowledge and understanding so crucial in disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. The STEM fields almost always have required sequences. McCormick has its core curriculum, and Weinberg departments like Biology, Physics, and the Integrated Science Program have rigorous requirements. Most humanities and social science departments lack such structured requirements for a major or minor, and even those that do, such as Economics, are sorely lacking in rigor.

The solution, as I see it, is to restructure Weinberg undergraduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences in two major ways.

First, Weinberg should put an emphasis on interdisciplinary majors in the social sciences. Programs like International Studies, Legal Studies and Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences should be expanded and offered as primary majors. Interdisciplinary majors offered at other universities, such as Yale University’s Ethics, Politics and Economics Program, should be introduced in Weinberg.

Interdisciplinary majors offer many tangible benefits, including improved creativity, greater flexibility in research and more practical applications to real-life problems. Interdisciplinary majors are more realistic and practical. The world is a complex place, and no single approach can offer meaningful insights into politics, societal problems and the minutia of human life alone.

Second, Weinberg humanities and social science departments should create more rigorous core curricula. The History Department, for example, would benefit immensely from implementing a system whereby students concentrating in, say, History of the Americas are required to take a core sequence of U.S. and Latin American history. Such courses make upper-level seminars on specific topics – mass incarceration, American imperialism, suburbanization – more meaningful, as students with better background knowledge are able to engage the details without worrying about making up deficiencies in the basics.

Departments and programs should also establish a better system of related courses requirements, implementing mandatory guidance from faculty advisors. Students of U.S. History, for example, would benefit from fulfilling their Ethics & Values distribution requirements in courses on Christian ethics or Enlightenment thinking, and their Literature & Fine Arts distribution requirements in American Literature.

I expect to be accused of encouraging a culture of “coddling,” or “helicopter parenting” in absentia. The issue with many of Weinberg’s humanities and social science departments is they allow too much choice, enabling students to self-coddle, so to speak, by taking classes they expect to be easy, or material with which they feel most comfortable. Rigorous requirements force students to get outside of their intellectual comfort zones, fostering learning and critical thinking.

NU students are young adults, moving gradually towards independence. College offers students a great deal of freedom in various aspects of life. When it comes to our education, we may want to defer to people with more experience. How can we be expected to know what’s best for our education in fields we are only just starting to explore? Nobody questions rigorous core requirements in STEM fields. I firmly believe the humanities and social sciences should be no different. Laying a strong foundation is crucial for continued intellectual growth.

An expansion of interdisciplinary studies majors and implementation of rigorous core curricula across the social sciences and humanities are essential for improving the educational experiences of NU students. Addressing complex problems in the workplace, in academia and in the world at large requires an interdisciplinary approach built on a firm foundation of background and contextual knowledge.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.