Adelberg: A Minor Problem

We need more interdisciplinary minors.

by Steven Adelberg | 6/28/19 2:05am

There’s a lot to learn at the intersection of academic subjects. Different fields offer different worldviews, and understanding how they overlap gives us a better understanding of issues. As a liberal arts college, Dartmouth should celebrate the overlap between disciplines and encourage students to seek out an interdisciplinary education. 

While the College has many tools to promote interdisciplinary learning, from distributive and major requirements to interdisciplinary majors, some of those options can’t adequately fulfill the College’s commitment to both academic openness and depth of study. Changes to distributive requirements or major requirements would unnecessarily constrain students’ freedom to explore subjects that interest them; interdisciplinary majors and modified majors, meanwhile, might allow students to graduate Dartmouth without truly mastering any particular field of study. 

Dartmouth’s best option for an interdisciplinary education that still encourages student freedom and in-depth learning is to offer more interdisciplinary minors alongside its traditional curriculum. 

Critics might worry that new interdisciplinary offerings would compete with traditional degrees in a way that prevents students from exploring any subject in detail. But these concerns miss the guiding principle of interdisciplinary minors. While disciplinary thinking teaches students to study in-depth, interdisciplinary thinking encourages problem solving and open-mindedness. Dartmouth should encourage students to develop both skill sets — and interdisciplinary minors uniquely encourage students to build off skills of a discipline with the shared knowledge of many disciplines.

Students will be rewarded in the real world if they can successfully combine disciplinary skills with interdisciplinary knowledge. The 21st century’s problems are more complicated than ever, from the challenges of climate change and international development to the opportunities of nanotech and artificial intelligence — anyone who can make progress on these problems is likely to be well-employed for a long time coming. Interdisciplinary thinking is not a substitute for specialization in any given field, but a prerequisite: Experts must draw insights from many fields in order to truly master their craft.

Dartmouth already provides some opportunities to do just that. The human-centered design minor, for example, combines an engineering foundation with fields as diverse as psychology, computer science, public policy and business — what better education could an entrepreneurial student receive? Ethics minors build a foundation in moral philosophy before exploring real-world problems in government, medicine, anthropology and human geography. Interdisciplinary minors like these encourage intellectual curiosity, pushing students outside the confines of a defined field and preparing them for a diverse set of roles in society. This is the promise of a liberal arts education, a promise the College should keep by expanding its offering of interdisciplinary minors. 

New interdisciplinary minors, like rhetoric, equality or biotechnology, would be both in-demand and easily scalable. Dartmouth students already show great interest in multiple disciplines. According to the Office of Institutional Research reports that between 2014 and 2018, 18.3 percent of Dartmouth students graduated with double majors and 9.4 percent of students changed their majors during their career. Still others join groups — like the DALI Lab or the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network — that require interdisciplinary thinking. Meeting this demand would not be especially difficult. Interdisciplinary minors could even be constructed using classes that are already offered by the College, reducing the administrative burden of creating new minors. 

With all these compelling benefits associated with interdisciplinary minors, Dartmouth should continue to emphasize a liberal arts education unconfined to a single discipline. Interdisciplinary minors can bring separate parts of the Dartmouth experience together and, together with traditional majors, provide an even better education to Dartmouth undergraduates. The College can and should make more interdisciplinary majors available to Dartmouth students in order to fulfill the College’s liberal arts mission.

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