September 20

As universities across the country welcome a new class of students, many are embarking upon a first semester of “gen ed” classes with waning enthusiasm.

With today’s outsized emphasis on educating students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the general education classes in written and oral composition — history, literature and philosophy — have been slowly marginalized, becoming little more than a box to check on the way to courses that really matter.

This view of an overly specialized STEM curriculum came under fire early this summer. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the country’s leading authority on policy questions for these disciplines, published an important report advocating for the integration of the humanities and arts within science, engineering and medical education.

Though an important call to action, the report does not prescribe a particular way to do this. At Purdue University, we have developed a solution — one that not only addresses the void in specialized STEM curricula, but promises to revitalize a stagnant liberal arts curriculum.

The fact that it is necessary at all rests at the feet of many in the liberal arts who have devalued the humanities and arts over the past handful of decades.

Accreditation agencies have been swayed by education experts who write learning objectives that say very little about what students actually learn in college. At the same time, university administrators approach the core curriculum as a way to manage competing constituencies and minimize conflict, rather than a pursuit of what makes higher education meaningful.

Together, academics and administrators have championed a soft and directionless core curriculum, one that fails to challenge or inspire students. Often the result is students who complete their general education requirements with little engagement and seldom stray from their major area of study.

Rather than functioning as on-ramps to dynamic areas of inquiry, the classes are cul-de-sacs with no path forward.

Within the liberal arts, we have adopted the tendency of monopolists, failing to evolve and enhance our product, content in the knowledge that students will enroll in our classes as part of their graduation requirements whether they want to or not.

We have lost sight of the fact that our courses may be stale, overly dogmatic and uninteresting to students, accepting our role as an often unwanted requirement on the path to a diploma.

The result of these unforced errors is that, for many, the liberal arts no longer are an integral part of what constitutes a college education. They are easily replaced. A three-week overseas study class has become acceptable to fulfill the sole humanities component of a plan of study.

At Purdue University, the majority of students graduate without taking a course in history, literature or philosophy.

The liberal arts have lost students, but more important, they have lost relevance.

Each year hundreds of students graduate with no sense of our shared history, no understanding of the underpinnings of our government, no appreciation for our literature, art or culture.

But even before the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said “enough” to a higher education system that has become too specialized and too isolated, we had said “enough” in the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue.

Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts serves Purdue students with themes that complement our signature strengths. A student can choose from a purposeful set of courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences that explore the themes of science and technology, environment and sustainability, health care and medicine, management and organization, and conflict resolution and justice.

Within each discipline, students fulfill core requirements to advance them on their degree paths while developing a deeper, more nuanced understanding of people and societies.

Programs like Cornerstone do exist for a small group of elite students at private liberal arts colleges and Ivy League institutions. Schools such as Columbia, Notre Dame, the University of Chicago and Yale offer a core curriculum that is committed to developing a broader understanding of complex issues, a deep curiosity and vibrant shared experience among all students.

But those are schools unlike Purdue, a public, land-grant university. What sets Cornerstone and our effort apart is the aspiration of advancing an educational experience shaped by the humanities at a university with one of the nation’s largest engineering- and science-based student bodies.

Cornerstone features a first-year experience in oral and written communication using a Great Books curriculum. But more than a change in content, Cornerstone features a change in teaching philosophy: These first-year courses are taught by our best teachers, exceptional faculty members from across our disciplines.

At a comprehensive public research university, having faculty teach introductory courses in the liberal arts is uncommon. In the humanities, that has more commonly become the domain of graduate teaching assistants. But we believe it is essential to build a new model of graduate education in the humanities, one in which our programs exist not merely to deliver undergraduate education but to offer important research opportunities alongside teaching experiences.

Integrating faculty into the first-year experience has the added benefit of building relationships. For our faculty, this cohort of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, artists, linguists, philosophers, literature scholars and political scientists reconnects them intellectually around their shared commitment to the teaching mission of the academy.

But most important is what our new approach to the liberal arts offers students: communication and creative thinking skills to prepare business leaders, well-rounded scientists and good citizens.

David A. Reingold is the Justin S. Morrill dean of liberal arts and professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue University.