Health studies should be more than do-it-yourself curriculum

Students interested in public health may have had a tough time looking for classes this year. Squeezed between psychology and religious studies, the short blurb on public health wasn’t even long enough to merit a page marker for perusing bluebookers. While the administration is making progress with expanding public health-related courses on campus, Yale can and should move more quickly in establishing an interdisciplinary health studies major for undergraduates.

The idea for an interdisciplinary major in health is not new. In 2003, the Committee on Yale College Education Report stressed the importance of creating such a major in order to prepare students to think critically about pressing national and international health challenges. In 2000, Harvard University began to offer a certificate in health policy as a kind of second major for interdisciplinary health study. And about 30 years ago, Johns Hopkins University created an independent public health major, which is now the third most popular at that school.

Student support for a health studies major is as strong as ever. In the spring of last school year, more than 100 Yale students signed a petition urging the creation of a health studies major, and the Yale College Council passed a resolution to that effect.

Yet despite competition from peer institutions and pressure from undergraduates, the progress of the health studies major has been slow. A couple of health studies-related courses were added this year, and a Web site was created to help students find such courses, but serious talk about — and funding for — a full undergraduate major lags behind.

Of course, for students overwhelmed by the impressive number of courses Yale offers this shopping period, the addition of a health studies major may seem at best redundant and at worst more confusing for those contemplating the “major” decision. Indeed, Yale’s current offerings of health studies offer substantial education for interested students, and recent effort to make these courses more accessible through a new health studies Web site is laudable. But without the direction of a formal program, much of that potential interest is lost.

The Yale College Programs of Study defines a major as “a number of courses in the same area,” but in reality, a major is much more. In addition to providing resources for advising and advanced study, a major is a launching pad for our liberal arts education. By studying a subject we care about in depth, we can sharpen our skills and broaden our horizons. Recognizing the fact that majors can and should transcend disciplines, Yale already offers numerous interdisciplinary programs, such as international studies for students interested in global issues and cognitive science for students interested in the brain. Unfortunately, there remains no centralized undergraduate program dedicated to the study of health.

Recognizing this gap in the University’s programs of study, some faculty and administrators have been working on adding a health studies major, but the process is anything but easy. To meet Yale’s high standards, a new major requires a solid curriculum, plenty of course offerings and strong faculty to lead the program. In University parlance, this would be called “redirecting resources” and “change to the status quo,” either of which can mean “not in our lifetimes.” While no one questions the need to create a high-quality program, we also know that in a place that took 300 years to add soap to the bathrooms, such change doesn’t come cheap.

During this time of balancing conflicting classes and changing class schedules, it’s easy for students to give in to the status quo. Hopefully, the market metaphor “shopping period” can provide a different sort of inspiration. Like it or not, higher education is driven by a kind of supply and demand. If we students demand a more rigorous interdisciplinary study in health, we will get it.

At this year’s freshman address, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey delivered a powerful speech titled “Thinking in New Ways.” Perhaps it’s time that we all started thinking outside the Blue Book to imagine what our education can become.

Robert Nelb is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.

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