Major Consolidation

by Peter Blair | 2/24/09 4:19am

Last week, I wrote a Short Answer arguing that we should cut major departments that could be subsumed into other departments, like Native American studies and women's and gender studies. While women's and gender studies and Native American studies are more technically categorized as "programs," the difference is semantic -- both have their own office, staff and courses. I want to write an article explaining this position on these issues more fully. I think these departments are in disharmony with Dartmouth's educational mission, and are both arbitrary and unnecessary.

Dartmouth calls itself a liberal arts college. Webster's dictionary defines liberal arts as "the studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) in a college or university intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment)." A liberal arts college, then, should focus on the fundamental and the general over the secondary and specialized. Departments that offer secondary and specialized courses of study about single racial, ethnic, geographic or gender groups are not in line with the idea of a liberal arts education. Religion, politics and history, for example, are general and foundational; Native American spirituality, history and politics are not. I'm not saying knowledge of those areas is not interesting or important, but rather that it is too specialized and secondary to merit a separate department. A person could still be considered well-educated if he knew little about feminist theory, but not if he knew nothing about World War II.

Furthermore, I think one is required to ask why the College stops dividing its academic departments where it does. Why only these departments? Why only these groups? If indeed we need different programs for racial and ethnic groups, why not for religious ones? Should we not dissolve the religion department and make separate programs for Christianity, Buddhism, etc.? Should we not break up the French and Italian department into two separate programs? Should not the Classics department be split into two -- one Greek and one Roman? If the College really followed through on the principle that lies behind NAS and WGST, our curriculum would be much more fragmented than it is currently.

Tealease Orme '10 points out in a letter to the editor that "'Feminist literature' does not sum up the WGST program, and the suggestion to group NAS under the history or anthropology departments is equally ignorant" (A Short-Sighted Suggestion, Feb. 18). She's right: the classes these programs currently offer would not fit into only one or two departments. I picked out only a few representative examples for my Short Answer because I did not think a list of departments would be interesting to read. Her point, however, does not really affect my argument. WGST classes would fit very nicely into many other departments. So why not put them there? The professors for these programs often teach in other departments. Most have a home department, be it history or English or government, and they bring the discipline of that department to bear on women's and gender studies or Native American studies. So why not move these classes into the professors' home departments? The very way these programs of study are structured suggests that they could easily be subsumed into other departments, whatever those departments might be.

If these major programs were disbanded, it might seem like students who had an interdisciplinary interest in these areas would no longer be able to pursue it. However, I think there is a way for the College to provide a mechanism for the comparatively small number of students deeply interested in such an interdisciplinary program to study these areas without creating a separate, unneeded department. The way the College handles medieval studies is a perfect model. A student who has an interest in medieval studies can take classes in different departments that deal with the medieval time period, and then petition the College to allow him or her to modify the major with medieval studies. This model is excellent because it avoids disciplinary fragmentation while still allowing students to pursue a particular academic passion, and because the College limits medieval studies to a major modification. This policy is one truly worthy of a liberal arts school, as it is an acknowledgement of the secondary nature of medieval studies and the importance of its subordination to primary and more general subjects. If the College followed this model for all such areas, it would an important step toward acting once again like a true liberal arts college.