The Loss of a Program

by Stephanie Long | 5/12/03 5:00am

In his 1998 Inauguration Address, Dartmouth President James Wright noted that "interdisciplinary work is strong here, and, in part because of our size, we can make it stronger." In earlier remarks to the Dartmouth community, President Wright expressed similar sentiments, noting that Dart-mouth "is a place that is marked by flexibility, by a sense of community and by full opportunities for interdisciplinary work bridging not only arts and sciences departments but also including the strong programs we have developed in the professional schools."

Students and faculty at Dartmouth may be familiar with Humanitates Vitae, an interdisciplinary program in human biology directed by Dr. Lee Witters of the Biology Department and the Dartmouth Medical School, which blended natural science, social science and the humanities. The goals of the Humanitates Vitae program exemplified the goals of interdisciplinary education in numerous ways, yet as of July 1, 2003 the Humanitates Vitae program will end when its support from an outside grant expires.

The idea of interdisciplinary education is, we believe, not just a passing trend but rather a recognition of the need to address the problems and issues of our generation in a more holistic manner. It has always been, and will perhaps always be, convenient to divide knowledge into separate disciplines, and doing so will allow Dartmouth to train skilled artists, biologists, economists, mathematicians and political scientists. However, the somewhat arbitrary distinctions between academic subjects and departments are non-existent outside the confines of academic institutions such as Dartmouth, and in order to address adequately the global issues facing our world today, we must dissolve the boundaries that divide these disciplines. As a painfully clear example, the solution to the AIDS crisis will not come from science alone but rather from an integrated approach involving economists, politicians and scientists, all acting through culturally appropriate means. There is an important distinction between academic subjects and issues, and although training in subjects is an integral part of any education, producing students who are passionate about working on issues is a goal we believe should be a central tenet of Dartmouth's educational mission.

Clearly this is a simple idea: insights from one subject can and should inform understandings of other subjects, especially when it comes to addressing the pressing social problems of our generation. The mission statement of the Humanitates Vitae project notes that our generation has "been marked by a revolution in human biology" that can only be addressed through blending disciplinary perspectives: " for example, philosophy, ethics, economics, business and government have much to contribute to understanding challenges posed by the human genome, assisted reproductive technologies, environmental policy, medical care systems and Third World health and disease." We believe that Dartmouth should strive to produce students who will be more than simply biologists or economists, but rather be passionate, informed and socially conscious scientists and citizens who will be able and willing to take on the most significant challenges facing our world today. The Humanitates Vitae program was quite possibly the most innovative and promising program that sought to achieve these ends.

We are not nave to the fact that the current financial situation of the College is forcing tough decisions and cuts across campus. However, the important question that needs to be raised is what the priorities of the College are and what they should be. The College has repeatedly stated that it is committed to offering a rich and visionary academic atmosphere. The Humanitates Vitae program fulfilled a need that few other programs at the College address; far more than simply offering courses, the program offered a forum in which scientists, philosophers, economists and artists could discuss and debate issues of global concern. We believe that Dartmouth's goal should be to produce more than just skilled students, but also educated activists, critical thinkers and leaders, and programs such as Humanitates Vitae were perhaps the best chance we had to do so. We believe that the decision to end the Humanitates Vitae program is not only leaving Dartmouth a poorer educational institution, but that the decision also reflects misplaced priorities of the College. Thank you, Dr. Witters and colleagues, for having the vision and enthusiasm for education that was required to create such an exciting and unique program. We can only hope that the College's decision will not dissuade others from following in your footsteps.