Integrative Education Should Be Available To All Students

By Gerrit Egnew

Classical Greek and Latin education was composed of seven topics, which Aristotle called “the liberal sciences.” These were divided into the trivium ­(grammar, logic and rhetoric) and quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music). This partition is anachronistic to modern students; why isn’t music over with language, where it belongs? Why does logic not dwell with mathematics? Such classification bemuses the rigid contemporary demarcation between science and the humanities. Modern conceptions of education hinge on separation of art and science. But perhaps we need to take another look at such blending of disciplines. The Greeks considered mastery of all areas the only general and proper education; why should a dichotomy prevail now?

The “About MSU” page lists four focus areas: “Academic Excellence,” “Very High Research,” “Engagement and Outreach” and “About Bozeman.” It is significant that research is a focus area for Montana State, and it’s no secret that this is a university devoted to science and engineering. The sciences bring in the most money, attract the most students and deliver the most prestige. In keeping with academic tradition, however, MSU does give a small nod to a well-rounded education.

Unless you’ve had some requirements waived, you’re familiar with Core 2.0, which includes Writing, University Seminar, Quantitative Reasoning, Diversity, Contemporary Issues in Science, Inquiry, Research and Creative Experience.This program provides a veneer of holistic education, but it has no integrative depth.  Rather than facilitating inquiry and student curiosity, the Core 2.0 classes are either remedial or an imposition. These requirements are frustrating to meet, not because they distract from a student’s degree program, but because they are unstimulating. The curriculum committees steering the program must rethink the program structurally: Core 2.0 is not too much, but rather too little.

Counterpoint to these university-wide requirements stands the Honors College, which provides a holistic and wide-ranging program. It challenges all disciplines to address issues outside their purview: classes like “The Art and Science of Medicine,” “Our Nuclear Age” and “Texts & Critics” bring students of varying academic focus to a single table. These classes embrace the vitality of mixing arts and sciences. Activities such as Hike and Read or master classes with the likes of E.O. Wilson, Yann Martel and Douglas Hofstadter ­– peerless thinkers pushing the boundaries of what we understand to be art or science – provide fodder for student-driven discussion; the best learning is self-motivated, not didactic.

As much good as the Honors College provides, it encompasses only a fraction of students, a subset that is already predisposed toward critical thinking and exploration. If the MSU administration wishes to send bold, inquisitive and broadly-informed graduates into the future it must provide a holistic education for everyone. This education must foster the intrinsic curiosity of all students.

There have been some promising beginnings: The Design Sandbox for Engaged Learning (DSEL), headed by Professor Meta Newhouse, recently began offering design-driven classes buck the standard model of education. “Innovative Ideation,” offered in the spring, brings engineers, business and marketing students and art and design students together in group-based projects that result in tangible, marketable products. Engineers, this class replaces Junior Design, EGEN 310.

Another promising trend is an NSF grant awarded to Drs. Paul Gannon, Ryan Anderson and Carolyn Plumb of the College of Engineering to study the effectiveness of integrating sustainability education into engineering curriculum. Dr. Gannon is a member of the Core 2.0 CIS Steering Committee. The abstract states: “[The] technical emphasis [in engineering] alone can be a barrier for students to enter engineering. Furthermore, students receiving only technical preparation are less able to approach complex problems involving multiple perspectives, e.g. ethics, economics, social justice etc.” The professors hope that incorporating broader concepts of sustainability into engineering education will better recruit, retain and prepare a more diverse population of engineers.  

“A great example,” says Anderson, “could be fracking. It’s a major engineering feat with overlap to several classes. It’s also in the news a lot and has major societal impacts; this would provide a natural coupling in the classroom.” Without distracting from an admittedly rigid engineering curriculum, students could learn about the mechanics of diffusion through a porous media (how fracking is modeled) as well as the ethical and economic components of the industry.
The barriers separating traditional disciplines are becoming meaningless. Ethics infects biology, design disrupts business, history informs engineering. To foster holistic learning, MSU administration can do much.  I suggest a new model that provides students with the opportunity to take upper-division classes in other disciplines for pass/fail; this would provide access to more interesting classes with less pressure, fostering curiosity.  MSU can also offer more classes co-taught between colleges and programs, or introduce seminar-style classes that dwell on the margins of disciplines, following the model of the Honors College. It can divert additional funding to programs like DSEL and bring such resources to a wider pool of students. Action is required.  “I do think most of the ills facing the world won’t be solved by a technical solution,” Anderson says. “And people have to value whatever cause technology is being applied to.” In an increasingly connected and hyperactive global community, the silo model of education is decreasingly relevant.  Montana State has an obligation to its students to push learning into the bright and terrifying future.