Frank Bruni raises an interesting point about college majors in his May 26, 2018 opinion piece in the New York Times, “Aristotle’s Wrongful Death.” While I’m largely in agreement with Bruni’s opinion that the structure of majors and minors in college curriculum is not adequate preparation for success in today’s job market, I find his critique somewhat binary and incomplete in that he failed to provide enough examples of schools where interdisciplinary studies are baked into their brand and do, in fact, provide excellent career preparation.
Contrasting liberal arts studies to professional track programs like computer science, Bruni asks, “Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?” The answer is, of course, “no” yet most colleges do not allow for such cross-pollination.
Most, but not all.
Many colleges have kept their curriculum responsive to the times while not losing “sight of,” as Bruni puts it, “what makes traditional majors — even the arcane ones — so meaningful, especially now.”
In our work advising colleges and schools about their brands and communications strategies, many discussions we have center around the curricular model and how it can be strengthened in ways that balance a liberal arts foundation and career readiness. When we see this done well, we see that the age-old structures of majors and minors are not allowed to be barriers.
Juniata College, an independent, residential college of liberal arts and sciences, located in an exquisitely beautiful area of central Pennsylvania, has not used the term “majors” for decades. Ninety percent of their graduates (among them, a Nobel Laureate, multiple Fulbright scholars, and a plentitude of successful scientists, business people, artists, and others) land jobs or pursue advanced degrees within six months after graduation. A core message of the Juniata brand is that students design their own education and, in so doing, declare a Program of Emphasis (POE) – with the emphasis being on the individual student’s particular talents and interests. The program part of the POE is both a fluid and structured curricular plan built with the guidance of two advisors. Students take ample advantage of opportunities for robust research, internships, and resume-building work-study positions.
Bruni need only look to Juniata to see what he wishes more colleges would do. He states (emphasis mine):
“… colleges needn’t abandon majors in general or supposedly arcane majors in particular in order to propel graduates into the work force. They could do better at encouraging and arranging something that they already promote and that savvy students already embrace, which is the considered, concerted use of research projects, extracurricular activities, part-time employment, internships and networking to set up first jobs.”
Sarah Lawrence College (SLC) is another example of a liberal arts curriculum designed to prepare contributive and productive scholars. I first visited SLC with my son when he was a rising senior in high school. Among a long list of things he liked about the college, one that particularly stood out for him (and me) was that “Sarah Lawrence encourages exploration—without excessive requirements or confining majors.” This core message of the SLC brand was stated during the admissions tour and is lived out academically everyday. My son is now a rising senior at Sarah Lawrence, and when asked what he is studying he will explain that his “focus areas” are philosophy and film studies. SLC students learn from their professors and from their “don,” the uber-advisor who, from before day one of classes, serves as an academic guide, teacher, networker, and all around scholarly friend who instills in students a realization of their intellectual potential. As J.J. Abrams, class of ‘88 and prolific film and television producer said,
“What getting a Sarah Lawrence degree means is that you’ve attended an exceptional college that values the creative individual, personal discipline and unique thinking. I can’t think of a more powerful combination in this new economy. In business, in technology, government, entertainment. … you’ll actively use what you learned here every day.”
And then, there is RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design. In addition to the expected specific art and design programs of study, RISD also offers interdisciplinary concentrations such as “Computation, Technology and Culture.” It’s the alma mater of world renowned artists, architects, and designers and also of the members of the band, Talking Heads, the developers of spacesuits for Mars missions, and the founders of Airbnb. Quite an eclectic group bound together by their design-thinking ability, which is to my mind, the perfect synthesis of the theoretical and the practical.
It’s the kind of open thinking that academicians might want to adopt in order to disrupt current structures and accomplish the next major advance in higher education.