The Daily Northwestern

Gordon: Rethinking the college major

Jake Gordon, Columnist

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Many academic disciplines specialized throughout the 20th century, leading to the huge
number of department offerings at most modern universities. Sadly, in specializing the disciplines, we’ve frequently pushed one perspective of a debate into one department, and the other side into another. Because of this, when students declare a major and choose to follow that path, they can often be indoctrinated with one side of an argument, whereas they should instead be exposed to a diverse and contrasting array of scholarship.

Consider philosophy. At Northwestern, we have a philosophy department that focuses mostly on the “analytic” tradition advanced by many 20th century English and American philosophers. These views tend to focus on logic and explicit argumentation. But across Kresge Hall are the departments of Comparative Literary and Gender and Sexuality Studies, which far more frequently focus on the writers directly opposed to the analytic tradition. “Post-structuralists” authors like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault take aim at debasing the traditional, analytic approach taught by philosophy departments. But students majoring in philosophy may never hear about these authors, while those majoring in comparative literature may never hear a contemporary defense of analytic “structures.” Students can graduate with an ideology formed by a curriculum structured to show only one perspective. Even if professors and graduate students are more familiar and engaged in the differences between disciplines many undergraduate courses and departmental lines fail to reflect this struggle.

We have the same problem with economics and sociology. Economics majors are doused in economic dogma, rarely considering the several approaches to evaluating human behavior criticizing economics’ bold assumptions. And sociology majors, while learning so much about social constructs, are largely unexposed to worthwhile contrary economics analyses. University President Morton Schapiro and humanities Professor Gary Saul Morson teach a class dedicated to offering the cross-disciplinary approach that is generally missing, but that’s a Band-Aid on top of a problem deeply ingrained in the structure of higher education.

Many curious students examine the disciplines related to their own, but only through independent pursuits and readings. Our educational infrastructure is focused on churning out students who are well-versed in one side of an argument, but completely unaware of the other. It’s as if we had separate Republican and Democrat political science majors — neither of which requiring students to take classes within the other.

While I don’t know exactly how these problems could be fixed, I do have a few ideas. First, to receive a major in any discipline, students should be required to take more courses in directly related departments. Unfortunately, this movement isn’t gaining ground — the political science department on campus eliminated its related-discipline requirement in 2014. Second, Northwestern should encourage more faculty to co-teach courses across disciplines. Co-taught courses include both sides of the conversation and expose students to various disciplines within a single classroom. Lastly, NU should develop more multidisciplinary majors, to introduce students to a more diverse array of scholarship.

A number of solutions exist besides these surely exist, but this issue must be recognized as real and concerning. A college degree should require the exploration of a question. It currently requires the exploration of one answer to the question.

Jake Gordon is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at jacobgordon2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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