Considering that we are, in large part, a group selected for membership based upon our intellectual interests and capacities, Williams students are curiously unintellectual outside the classroom. Beyond the bounds of the academic, traditionally construed, there is little intellectual life to speak of. If the open, unpretentious, casual atmosphere that characterizes Williams is worthy of cultivation, so too should the intellectual abilities that bring us together be incorporated into that atmosphere; after all, we won’t much longer have “the classroom” as an “intellectual outlet.”
I spent last year at a large university where teaching occurs primarily on an individual basis, supplemented by voluntary lectures; there is no “class time” to speak of in this particular educational system. As a result, intellectualism is much more at the forefront of the university’s identity: students are “forced” to talk to each other about their academic interests in more informal settings – at meals, on the streets, at coffeehouses.
Related to the problem of confining the intellect to the classroom is the problem of disciplinary fragmentation and isolation. As a sophomore, I wrote a paper that made an active attempt to incorporate a thought-framework from one of my majors into a paper for a class in a different field (both were social sciences); the effort was not at all appreciated – and in fact penalized – by the professor for whom I wrote the paper. That we are encouraged to think of ourselves as “sociologists,” say, for two particular time-slots per week, and then again as “mathematicians” for three others, is not conducive to our development as “thinkers.” Nor is it conducive to thinking outside the time set aside for math and sociology classes.
If the liberal arts education is still to be defended – and I think it is – it is on the grounds that it “produces” people who are able to conceive the same problem in a variety of different ways, synthesizing a perspective from different analytic traditions. Along these lines, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel ’01 and I have been thinking about ways to modify the Williams curriculum to reflect this purpose as well as to question the artificially constructed boundaries that define our disciplines and to put intellectualism on the table as an aspect of Williams identity.
We agree that there should be several changes, both inside and outside the academic framework; central to our program is a set of interdisciplinary courses offered to the community and particularly focused on the sophomore class. My perspective suggests that these courses would be developed by sets of three professors from different disciplines, deciding together upon a common theme and creating a syllabus that draws upon all divisions and sets them in dialogue with each other. Several different thematically organized courses might be offered, so that potentially any student could find one that spoke to an intellectual interest of his.
Thinking outside “disciplinary frameworks” – and witnessing the results when the assumptions and methodologies of one discipline are applied to another – will energize Williams’ academic life; understanding that one does not have to be an economist to contribute something important and unique to an economic discussion will encourage people to challenge each other intellectually outside the safe havens of classes.