This year, I enrolled in the Humanities Sequence, a year-long class that seeks to examine canonical Western literature — from Homer to Virginia Woolf — in an interdisciplinary manner. The course is taught by multiple professors who each possess different areas of expertise and interests; this setting allows students to study the same work in sometimes a historical, sometimes a philosophical, and sometimes a literary manner.
The Humanities Sequence has made me realize the importance of diverse perspectives. I am mindful of this as I browse the course offerings for next fall.
Let me first give credit where credit is due. I do believe that the University is incredibly dedicated to providing an interdisciplinary education. Our distribution requirements attest to this. Currently, besides courses that are specifically designed to be interdisciplinary such as the Humanities Sequence and the Integrated Science Curriculum, Princeton offers many cross-designated courses that allow students to explore. We also have interdisciplinary concentrations. For example, the very popular Wilson School concentration includes aspects of economics, psychology, statistics and sociology. However, I believe that there is even more that the University can do at the level of individual classes.
Courses are cross-designated because they can be considered to meet more than one disciplinary need, not because they are designed to be interdisciplinary. For example, I am currently enrolled in HIS 210: The World of Late Antiquity, which is cross-listed between the history, classics, and Hellenic studies departments. It is an incredibly enjoyable class, and I have learned a lot from it so far. However, it is not an interdisciplinary class the way the Humanities Sequence is. Rather, it’s a history class that happens to be about the Classical era in the Hellenic world. Further, while the Wilson School itself is an interdisciplinary concentration, each course under it tends to conform to one discipline.
I propose that we have more individual classes that are designed to be interdisciplinary. For example, the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University offer PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) as a major; Yale offers a similar major called EPE (ethics, politics, and economics). I believe that Princeton can offer something like this as a class. There are a lot of possibilities for a course like this. It could examine works of Herodotus, Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Smith and so many more great canonical works. These great works give us plenty to think theoretically about in terms of man’s initial state and the origin of each government, which are philosophical questions, the best possible form, which is a political one, and the way market relates to state, which is an economic one. Philosophy, politics and economics affect one another. Ethics and normative judgment are always big questions to answer in politics and economics, and macroeconomics and politics are also linked.
When I asked my friends for ideas on courses like this, they were able to give me multiple ideas in a short amount of time. The existing East Asian Humanities Sequence could be vamped up so that it receives the amount of University attention and funding that the Humanities Sequence does. Furthermore, a similar course can be constructed for Middle Eastern literature and Eastern European literature. Courses like this could, besides exposing student to rich literary traditions of different cultures, provide a worldlier and less Eurocentric education.
There are limitless possibilities. There can be courses that think about psychology with sociology, or even neuroscience. Perhaps a course can examine mathematics in philosophy. University of Oxford offers Philosophy and Mathematics as a major because “the parallel study of these related disciplines can significantly enhance your understanding of each.” Socrates emphasizes the importance of mathematical education in “The Republic.” Some of the greatest philosophers, such as Descartes and Leibniz, were also mathematicians; in fact, the latter developed calculus independent of Newton. Philosophical thinking is deeply influenced by the development of Newtonian mechanics. This itself can be constructed into a class.
I view my education here as a struggle to maintain the right balance between obtaining a focused area of expertise and the interdisciplinary knowledge to place my area of expertise in relation to other fields. Individual, interdisciplinary classes offer a low-stress, low-commitment way of thinking with multiple perspectives and would enrich our education.
Erica Choi is a freshman from Bronxville, N.Y. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.