Observing the Higher Powers: Areas for Academic Expansion

honors rachel head

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

What will Swarthmore’s academic program look like in ten years? Now that we’ve entered the implementation phase of our strategic plan, Swarthmore is obligated to actually come up with an answer to that question. Strategic Directions is actually quite brief on the subject, so I’d like to offer some suggestions of my own. Ten years from now, Swarthmore should have strong programs in Environmental Studies, Neuroscience, and International Studies.

Before I go any further, I would like to lay out a couple of caveats. First off, these three programs should not be seen as limiting the potential for others. I’m arguing that our existing resources cannot adequately be used for these programs. They represent areas of inquiry and knowledge that are not available to students the way our programs stand today. And second, I’m not venturing to predict what shape these programs would take and what majors/minors they might offer. Implementation of academic programs is quite complicated, and I feel that the most important thing is that these three concepts be brought to the forefront of the discussion.

Let’s first turn to Environmental Studies. Now, yes, Swarthmore does currently have such a program. But I would argue that our program is woefully inadequate – it makes studying the scientific side of the discipline quite difficult without having taken previous courses in other natural science departments. The student who has an interest in Environmental Science but little interest in the prerequisite courses is functionally out of luck. Given the growing importance of Environmental Studies both in our daily lives and as a scientific discipline, our program should be significantly reworked to make both science and policy courses accessible to the students that are interested in them. Almost all of our peer institutions offer stronger programs in Environmental Studies, as they recognize just how vital this new field is. What this most likely means is hiring additional faculty and restructuring and expanding the program so that it accurately reflects the importance that the discipline plays in today’s world.

In addition, Swat should strongly push towards adding a Neuroscience program to our curriculum. Much like Environmental Studies, Neuroscience is a rapidly expanding discipline that not adequately covered by Swarthmore. As it stands today, there are some efforts in the Biology and Psychology departments to make Neuroscience available to students through a special major. This is evidence enough that there would be student interest in a program. Many of our peer institutions offer Neuroscience programs that offer regular majors to interested students. A quick search reveals such programs at Williams, Amherst, Pomona, Wesleyan, Carleton, and Colgate. To both match the opportunities that other schools offer their students and respond to the emerging nature of the field, Swarthmore should consider creating a formal program in Neuroscience.

A third program that I view as essential is one currently not offered at all today: International Studies. While many colleges offer International Relations programs, which are most often blends between Political Science, History, and Economics, very few schools offer programs in International Studies. The field at its core is global and broad, and is not restricted to politics and economics as International Relations often is. International Studies doesn’t confine itself to studying the interactions between countries. It takes an incredibly useful global and borderless approach.

It is because of these unique ways of approaching global issues that I see International Studies as having a unique role to play at Swarthmore. We strive to engage ourselves with the external community and to study the complex ways in which the world is evolving. If we truly care about maintaining that mission, then studying world issues in a way that is not limited by artificial constraints is what we should be doing. International Studies offers us a way to do that. Further, it is not a very common program, with only Trinity, Macalester, Vassar, and Williams offering either majors or minors in the field. Adding International Studies would offer Swarthmore a relatively unique way to adapt the way we study the ever-changing world. In comparison to Environmental Studies and Neuroscience, where we are behind the curve and we have an obligation to catch-up in these important areas, International Studies would offer Swarthmore a way to be a leader in this more global approach to studying the world and its challenges.

The world we will enter when we graduate is meaningfully different from that our parents’ generation saw, which is why we need to strive to change the way we prepare for it. The way I see it, strong programs in Environmental Studies, Neuroscience, and International Studies will all help us better prepare for the times we live in. These disciplines better unify our existing curriculum and allow us to make better connections All told, adding them would make Swarthmore a much better institution.

The author’s father is employed at Macalester College, which has an International Studies program.


  1. What about a leadership program or courses on leadership, management, and communication? I think these are really important skills that every liberal arts student should develop.

  2. Main claim some questions and comments. Nervous. Also, how? Or maybe? SWAT is important to think about some other pioneering programs. Has tried to eradicate the invasive species discrimination Ed Swatties Misfunded of the political system.

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