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Is Duke Really a Liberal Arts School? (Op-Ed)

I’d like to think that the modern Renaissance Student isn’t dead.

Coming home for winter break after completing just one semester at Duke means being peppered with endless questions about my future from dear relatives and friends. The most popular question of them all being: “What is your major?” I’ve heard this question enough times to know that “major” is code for your career path, and thus the inevitable follow-up question ensues: “So what are you going to do with that degree after college?”

When I say that I am undecided, I watch as a cloud of grave concern descends upon them, pity plastered all over their faces. Well-meaning, or so I presume, their syrupy sweet voices quickly assure me, “Oh, don’t worry! You still have time to decide.” I nod in feigned agreement, longing to ward off any further questions on how I’m planning to spend the next three and a half years of my lavish Duke education. After several beats of awkward silence, conversation quickly melts away and I plan my escape.

As well as grappling with invasive questions that evoke preordainment, I also watched an endless stream of TED Talks over winter break, as one does to keep those neurons firing before they have the chance to hibernate. Amid my TED Talk marathon, I stumbled upon Emilie Wapnick’s talk “Why some of us don't have one true calling.” Wapnick depicted the struggle of multipotentialites, a group of individuals defined by their multiplicity of interests and potential in a wide range of fields rather than honing in on one particular subject. A multipotentialite is another word for the classical “Renaissance Man,” revered for their ability to excel in many fields.

After watching this video, I rejoiced in the fact that my core intellectual values of interdisciplinarity were uplifted. But this moment of self-understanding quickly transformed into deeper existential questions of the modern “Renaissance Student.” To me, proclaiming a major is like a verdict for intellectual internment. Of course, this could just be a not-so-tragic lamentation from an over-eager, highly indecisive first-year. And perhaps it is. I know I’m not supposed to have it all figured out fresh out of first semester, but I suspect that the problem goes deeper than indecision. Questions rapidly began to fill my mind: Will I have to compromise my wide interests–history, neuroscience, music, biology, english, psychology, and more–for the sake of obtaining my degree? What doors of opportunity do I open? Is there even a place for me in the workforce?

When I first applied to Duke, I envisioned this vast intellectual playground where I could interact with one of the greatest collection of young minds in the country, explore new ideas with world-class professors at the top of their fields, and evolve into the self-professed academic I’ve always aspired to be. I soon found that expectation does not equal reality. I’ve only been at Duke for a semester now, but the sheer transfixion on pre-professionalism startles me. To find out that the very institution that I believed would cultivate academic diversity and individuality instead seems to reinforce pathways straight to certain professions. I don’t think this is the fault of Duke itself, but rather the culture.

As a liberal arts institution, Duke supposedly upholds the values of critical thinking and problem solving, using different forms of knowledge to develop as a broadly intellectual person. The labyrinth of “Areas of Knowledge” and “Modes of Inquiry,” in addition to fulfilling the Foreign Language requirement are benchmarks that affirm Duke’s institutional commitment to humanistic exploration. And on top of being a liberal arts institution, Duke also offers a special degree program for students who cannot fit into the standard mold of a major curriculum called Program II. By its very nature, Duke is meant to be the “intellectual playground” I imagined, but it doesn’t feel that way. I notice a pattern of sacrificing passion for pragmatism, and an overall denigration of people who choose breadth over depth. That’s not to say that students should not be future-oriented or think about possible professions, and that’s not to say that students who aspire to be in the medical field should not take the required pre-health courses.

I recall my friend Thomas, a sophomore at Duke experiencing the agony of deciding upon a major, who challenged the premise of “depth over breadth,” stating that you can harness depth through breadth. Cherishing the idea of the “Renaissance Student,” he believes that “you have the choice of demonstrating your expertise via becoming very good at one specific skill, or becoming knowledgeable about many skills.” And I couldn’t agree more. A Duke degree opens doors; there’s no doubt about it. However, the current culture stifles the modern Renaissance Student. For the sake of measuring up to our peers, we sacrifice curiosity and exploration in the never-ending rat race to acquire success and financial security. These are understandable constraints, but they aren’t the end-all be-all. In fact, the very framework of Duke’s curriculum is uniquely equipped to accommodate us, in spite of the general culture’s proclivity to specialization, providing a vast terrain of intellectual freedom and resources.

Thinking back to my winter break, I always want to fire back at my interrogators (rather than plot a quick getaway) and remark that innovation and creativity aren’t shackled by the chains of specialization, rather, they intersect at the overlaps between different ideas and disciplines. However, I hold back. I realize that a multidisciplinary approach is just one way to view the world, and they are completely entitled to theirs. And I also realize that polymaths need their specializing peers, and vice versa in order to solve complex world problems.

I’d like to think that the modern Renaissance Student isn’t dead. So maybe the lot of us can grab a coffee sometime? I promise I won’t ask you what your major is.

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