New Focus At Duke

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

Duke University’s undergraduate curriculum — like many others – went through a period of erosion beginning in the late 1960s. For many schools, that decline has continued, but not at Duke, according to a new paper just released by the Pope Center. “The Decline and Revival of Liberal Learning at Duke: The Focus and Gerst Programs,” written by Russell K. Nieli, examines how Duke stopped the decline and suggests ways in which other schools can help their students find more meaning in their education.

Nieli, who graduated from Duke in 1970 and now teaches at Princeton, observes that the administration at Duke – as at many other prominent universities – succumbed to two Siren songs during this period. One was to relax the constraints of the old idea of a core curriculum in order to give students more control over their college education. The result was a “distribution requirements” system that allowed students to pick most of their courses from a smorgasbord of offerings.

That change destroyed the educational commonality that had once tied Duke students together. “Gone were the days when almost all Duke students would have read the Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, and King Lear; when you could strike up a conversation with even a Duke chemistry or biology major on the differences between St. John’s Gospel and the Synoptics; when students eagerly debated in their dorm lounges whether Yeats, Eliot, and Pound were fascists or high-minded traditionalists; and when Southern students and faculty took special pride in the outstanding literary achievements of the great Southern writers,” Nieli says.

The other big change was an effort to make the university’s humanities departments more prestigious by hiring professors known for their avant garde writings. Especially in English and literature, Duke sought to generate academic “excitement” by bringing in a host of theorists championing postmodernism, Marxism, deconstructionism, and other trendy ideas. The result was perhaps to raise the profiles of those departments among scholars who are drawn to “cutting edge” theories, but certainly to clutter the curriculum with boutique courses of questionable intellectual merit. Nieli writes that following this development, students “could spend almost all their reading and class time studying American westerns, twentieth century feminist literature, science fiction novels, contemporary popular novels, and the works of African American and Third World writers” in classes taught by flamboyant professors who invariably approached the material from a radical viewpoint.

Fortunately, a couple of life savers have been thrown to undergraduate education at Duke. In the early 1990s, several faculty members and administrators realized that the university had gone badly astray and looked for a way to reinvigorate the undergraduate curriculum. What they came up with was the Focus program. It brings together veteran professors who want to teach undergraduates (something that’s increasingly hard to find) with incoming students for a rigorous, interdisciplinary semester centering on a single subject or a cluster of related subjects. To heighten the intellectual environment, Focus students live together in a single dorm and have weekly dinner discussions with professors. Nearly a third of Duke freshmen now participate in the Focus program and many regard it as a high point in their college education.

The other important development Nieli discusses in his paper is the Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies. This program was the brainchild of a Duke graduate, C. Gary Gerst, who understood that, like most American universities, Duke overwhelmingly showers its students with the leftist mindset. He was disturbed by the virtual exclusion of conservative and free-market thought on university campuses and decided to do something about it at his alma mater. Gerst conceived of an academic program with one key goal – to further the student’s appreciation for the role that freedom and ordered liberty have played in our civilization.

Speaking at a Pope Center luncheon on Tuesday, March 13, Gerst said that he had become extremely disenchanted with American higher education, including Duke, by the early 1990s. He saw widespread faculty bias, speech codes that worked to punish dissent from orthodox opinion in academe, grade inflation, and an intellectual climate that was generally hostile to private property, free enterprise, and capitalism. Furthermore, he saw that undergraduates were often being shortchanged in the classroom as professors put most of their effort into their research activities. Therefore, he started looking for a way to improve matters at Duke.

His initial inquiries were unavailing. The dean he contacted, Gerst concluded, was hoping that eventually he’d give up on trying to craft exactly the program he wanted and would just make an unrestricted grant to the university. Fortunately, Gerst was put in contact with Michael Gillespie, a professor in the political science department. Gillespie understood what Gerst wanted to do and was sympathetic to his aims. The two of them worked out the details and got the program off the ground. Today it thrives among students who are deeply interested in ideas and don’t mind working harder than most other freshmen on campus.

The Focus and Gerst programs have done much to reinvigorate undergraduate education at Duke and the question logically presents itself – why aren’t other universities doing similar things? A few are. The trouble is that there are only a small number of people like Gary Gerst who have the determination to fight the academic bureaucracy and establish a sound program that won’t later be changed in what Gerst called the “bait and switch” scheme. Moreover, faculty opposition can be fatal. The intellectual climate at Duke is liberal, but many of the faculty members are more committed to the free exchange of ideas than propounding their own ideological views. That, however, is not the case everywhere. At Hamilton College, when a donor sought to establish a program to study traditional American institutions, the faculty contrived to kill it off. (Clarion Call reported on the Hamilton College debacle here.)

Nevertheless, the experience at Duke with the Focus and Gerst programs shows that it’s possible for universities to rescue undergraduate education and breathe new vigor into it. Perhaps some donors will read Professor Nieli’s study and think to themselves, “Maybe I should try that.”

George Leef is vice president for research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.