Yes, and! to Delbanco and Peede

October 1, 2020
 
 

Andrew Delbanco and Jon Parrish Peede recently advocated for reinvigorating what general education can do for society by providing a rehearsal space for democracy – a place for students to engage with the big human questions as they navigate programs focused on specialized, career-relevant skills. We wholeheartedly agree with Delbanco and Peede’s proposals. General education should serve as the rehearsal space for democratic engagement and the construction of a meaningful, purposeful life. We also agree that a series of randomly chosen distribution requirements across a potpourri of disciplines can never create that rehearsal space or fully serve students in building a sense of purpose and meaning. And, we agree that the humanities offer a rich reservoir for students to grapple with the big human questions.

But, in the best spirit of creativity and improvisation – we say YES AND. The kinds of challenges facing society today require more than the opportunity to ask big human questions. They also demand of educated and engaged citizens a more than passing familiarity with the technological and scientific underpinnings of our world, and the institutions and forces that shape societies. The humanities alone cannot provide this understanding, and educating citizens for tomorrow means giving students a grounding in the big questions that draws on humanities and social sciences, but also firmly engages with STEM and fine arts fields, and not just through students’ major courses of study.

The kind of general education we envision, like the Cornerstone program, keeps valued approaches from the Humanities that are time tested across centuries (transformative texts, and an emphasis on written and oral communication), but would integrate those approaches with grounding in the technological elements that are also part and parcel of pressing modern problems. For example, students might read an array of works addressing relationships between human beings and the natural world they inhabit (from Aristotle to Solnit and Jemisin) while also learning basic principles of ecological science, and engaging with artwork relevant to human experiences of their ecological worlds. The faculty teaching these courses would work jointly with one another to ensure that their respective areas of expertise connect – for students and themselves. When such an education is provided in a cohort model, with intensive experiences built into the curriculum, the opportunities are twofold: an integrated, interdisciplinary experience for the way one can think systemically about the challenges of the modern world; and the experience of a small, living laboratory for democratic engagement with challenging issues.

We have been experimenting with this model at the University of Utah Honors College for several years in our Ecology and Legacy program. The premise is that life on earth is inherently ecological, mediated through interactions between the living and non-living world in any given landscape. In fact, the word “ecology” comes from the Greek word “Oikos” meaning home. Ecology, then, is the study of the relationships which allow and disallow life on the planet we call home. The biological systems on earth came about through a legacy of chance, natural selection, and evolution over millennia. Life as we know it, is a legacy of evolution.  At the most material level, then, questions about life are determined by the abiotic and biotic drivers in an ecosystem, the availability and use of critical resources, such as water, nutrients, and primary productivity. Yet, ecology is more than biology. Leaning on the work of Guattari, we might think about three ecologies: an environmental ecology, much like the foundational one we’ve described above, but also equally important is the social ecology and a mental/spiritual ecology. These ecologies require us to bring philosophers, poets, social scientists and artists to the conversation and use the disciplines to interrogate one another and to engage with the big environmental questions of our times.

Cohorts include STEM and non-STEM students and the response has been enthusiastically positive both during and years after the experience. Some of the comments students have reflect the kind of goals in the Cornerstone program: “To say this program changed my life is an understatement. Ecology and Legacy marks a pivot point for me because it redefined how I want to approach my career in materials science and engineering.” But others reflect a different set of educational goals that we think are equally important - “Ecology and Legacy wasn’t a class so much as a set of various lenses for looking into the world and coming back with a more comprehensive picture,” And “The program made me view the natural world through a lens that challenged my preconceived ideas of science as it merges with philosophy and art.”

These perspectives suggest that integrated, interdisciplinary general education approaches can also help students to see the ways in which diverse fields have both distinctive and common features, and might provide a foundation for more nuanced, complex, and systemic understandings of the challenges we face today. Notably, this approach to education is also challenging and invigorating for participating faculty, who confront the difficulties of understanding diverse ways of approaching the same themes, and who arrive at the end of their journeys changed and broadened – sometimes with new questions that might drive their scholarship.

We believe an integrative, interdisciplinary model that integrates humanities as well as STEM disciplines, and includes arts and social sciences as well, has immense potential as a way of approaching general education more broadly. Inasmuch as programs like Cornerstone may create engineers with a grasp of the big human questions, it is also part of a strong general education mission to create human resource professionals who have a basic understanding of ecological principles (or other bodies of scientific and technical work that are at the heart of modern challenges).

There are significant remaining hurdles for this kind of general education – about the scope and the scale of that education -- but we hope that as a collective force within our world, universities and colleges pick up the challenge of Delbanco and Peede, and bring the value of the humanities back to the table with new and needed allies across the disciplines.

-- Monisha Pasupathi
Professor and associate dean
Honors College and department of psychology
University of Utah

Sylvia Torti, professor and dean
Honors College
University of Utah

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