11/11/2013 11:53 am ET

Faculty Triads: A 21st-Century Model for Liberal Arts Education

"What's your major?" is one of the most commonly asked questions of college students today. Given the central role of the academic major in the identity and career options of current students, it's interesting to consider that the same question asked to one of our students in the mid-19th century would have elicited a blank stare.

The major is in fact a relatively recent construct in the long history of higher education, having been introduced at Harvard in 1910. Perhaps, however, the time has come to consider a new educational model for the 21st century -- one that de-emphasizes concentrating studies within a single discipline. This move will, I think, be driven by the interests of our students and the self-interest of liberal arts colleges.

Students ask, "What can I do with my major?" Too often, we respond as if the question were, "What job can I get if I major in biology (or philosophy or history or sociology)?" Our response is reasonable: After all, students have a right to expect a job upon graduation. I believe, however, that their "what can I do?" question goes much deeper than that. Students want to know what they will be able to accomplish in life.

Can a college major prepare a student to address such global problems as hunger or climate change or environmental sustainability? Many students will expect to make their contributions through their job, but the job will be meaningful only if it allows them to make a difference. Our students want to know how we will help them discern and then pursue a vocation.

Once considered old-fashioned, the term "vocation" is suddenly regaining popularity in academia. When grandparents, teachers, coaches, ministers and friends encouraged the current generation of students to build a better society, they listened. Many of them are actively seeking a vocation, which may or may not be tied to a major, but will allow them to make a difference.

At Monmouth College we believe that the best answers to "How will I make a difference?" transcend the academic major. For three decades we have been working to blur departmental boundaries that are both restrictive and artificial.

Long before it became popular to criticize academic majors as silos that store rather than distribute knowledge, Monmouth's intellectual leaders warned against putting students in towers without windows. The integrated learning focus that has become Monmouth's signature is ideally suited for a generation of students who are seeking to address the difficult issues that are immune to the efforts of overly specialized education.

It is no accident that all our required core courses have titles that transcend disciplines. While the capstone experience at most colleges focuses on creating knowledge in a major field, our curriculum culminates in an active citizenship experience. Our new academic building, designed to integrate disparate academic disciplines, is a $40 million investment in preparing students to solve complex problems.

Thirty years of experience in integrating curricula has prepared Monmouth College to launch a bold initiative we call "Triads." Endorsed and funded by our board of trustees last month, the Triads concept is a revolutionary and powerful approach to integrated learning. Beginning this year, we will hire faculty to three-member interdisciplinary teams that will focus on key global issues that challenge our idealistic students. Comprising a typical Triad will be one representative from the sciences, one from the humanities, and one from business.

The focus of our initial triad will be the critical issue of food security. Faculty working in this Triad will help our students think about how to ensure we produce enough food, that what we produce is available and affordable for all, and that the food is safe and nutritious.

The beauty of the Triads concept is that it maintains the useful structure of academic fields even as it encourages the integration of knowledge across departmental boundaries. Focusing Triads on important issues responds to a generation of students who are attracted to causes rather than bodies of knowledge. It clarifies the question of what kind of things can be done with a liberal arts degree.

The name Triads was inspired by the term given by 19th-century scientists to describe groupings of three or more elements that had similar chemical properties but dramatically different physical properties. These elemental triads were instrumental in the discovery of the periodic trends that ultimately produced the Periodic Table of the Elements. Having begun my career teaching analytic chemistry in a liberal arts environment, I have long viewed the Periodic Table as an ideal representation of the liberal arts in that it organizes a vast amount of information in a coherent manner, thereby promoting creativity over futile attempts at rote memorization. It is our expectation that the Triads we create will be as effective as were the triads of elements.

Most successful innovations can be traced to preexisting core values. I believe that is true of the Triads concept, which arose from our focus on integrated learning. Most innovations draw input from many stakeholders, and that was certainly the case in the many the conversations that led to the creation of Monmouth College Triads. More important than its origin, however, is our hope that the Triads concept will be an important tool in helping a generation of young people to pursue a noble calling.