integration and dissolution in general education

We’ve been discussing the relative merits of integration as a curricular value. The basic premise of integration is fairly straightforward. It asserts that students get more out of their education when they can connect their courses together. We know that students commonly complain that the traditional general education curriculum is meaningless to them. It doesn’t connect with their major, and it doesn’t connect with “real life.” How does this connect with the way that faculty view general education? That’s hard to say. Set aside all the economic, resource-driven attachments faculty and departments have to general education (go ahead… I’ll wait), and would we say that we disagree with our students’ assessment? Maybe. Does a short story or a western civilization course connect with a major in engineering or business? Maybe tangentially, though we might as easily say that it provides a counter-balance to the vocational motives of many popular majors. Would we say such general education courses connect with “real life”? Of course, I guess. But we typically don’t spend much time in such courses focused on helping students answer these questions. Instead we take as our focus covering disciplinary content. Asserting that the goal of a course is to present disciplinary content in a disciplinary way is the opposite of doing integration. Can one do both? Certainly. But to do “integration” is to take time away from disciplinary instruction. It probably also draws the professor away from his or her area of expertise.

Typically the way integration works is around a common thematic issue. As an example, let’s say “sustainability.” I might be an English professor teaching an environmental literature course, a philosopher teaching environmental ethics, an historian teaching a course on the settling of the US west, a biologist teaching a course on ecosystems, etc. etc. As a professor I am now teaching a fairly narrow, topical slice of my discipline. Instead of “introduction to ethics,” which sounds like a more traditional general education course, now I’m teaching environmental ethics. I might say “you have to understand ethics first before you can look specifically at ‘environmental ethics.'” I might say the same thing as an historian about US history. And so on and so forth. That’s a reasonable observation: one is giving up on disciplinary content and structure to some degree in order to open these interdisciplinary connections. Furthermore, I may have very little to offer in making connections across disciplines. Most faculty probably can make some interdisciplinary connections, and in a learning community these integrations can be carefully orchestrated, but in a looser cluster, it’s a different matter.

Instead, we affirm a curriculum of dissolution, one where content is divorced, siloed as we sometimes say. The emphasis isn’t on connection or integration. It’s on separation and definition. This is undeniably how the academy works: cutting the universe into every smaller bits. In some ways we might imagine integration as a myth. There is no whole out there. Our students experience the curriculum as disconnected because it is disconnected. Disciplinary knowledge doesn’t translate beyond its borders. And I would assert that that claim is largely accurate. Then I would turn toward Latour and say that where one does find translation one will also find a chain of actors responsible for that mediation. We can’t just simply tell our students to integrate and expect that courses fit together like Lego bricks, not when integration would even be a challenge for the faculty teaching the courses.

I don’t have any easy answer to this challenge. I can see the value in integration. I do think it is possible to build structures to support integration, and I think it is worth the effort to try. But I can hear the other side of the conversation as well, the side that has placed all its wager on disciplinarity. I’m just not sure if that bet is going to pay off for every discipline.