Executive Summary: The Decline and Revival of Liberal Learning at Duke: The Focus and Gerst Programs

To download the full report, click here.

Duke University grew from a small liberal arts college founded before the Civil War into a major national university by the 1960s. Throughout those years, the school (named Trinity College until 1924) was known for its solid, traditional curriculum and its opposition to the racism that was prevalent across most of the South. Unfortunately, Duke was badly affected by the student upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. Catering to students’ demands for greater control over their education, the university abandoned its old core curriculum in favor of a loose “distribution requirements” system, thereby discarding the idea that certain subjects are vital to a well-rounded education.

Even more important, university administrators decided that they wanted to boost Duke’s humanities departments to national prominence. To do so, they hired a number of avant-garde literary theorists who were expected to generate “academic excitement” with their “cutting edge” research. Although applications to graduate programs did increase, the result was an infusion of “postmodern” professors, especially in the English department, and a radicalization of some key components of the undergraduate curriculum. Western literature and culture were no longer the pillars of a Duke education; in fact, hostility to Western literature and culture became a hallmark of the school. Students interested in a traditional, non-political and un-avant-garde education went elsewhere.

In the early 1990s, several discerning faculty members and administrators realized that the university had gone badly astray and sought to reinvigorate the university’s undergraduate curriculum. The result was the Focus program (an acronym for First-year Opportunity for Comprehensive Unified Study). This program brings together veteran faculty members who desire to teach undergraduates with incoming students for a rigorous and interdisciplinary semester of study centering on a single subject or cluster of related subjects. The Focus program further intensifies the students’ educational experience by grouping participants in a single dorm and having a weekly dinner discussion with faculty members. Almost a third of all Duke undergraduates now participate in the Focus program and many regard it as a high point in their education.

Duke’s curriculum has also benefited from the generosity of one of its alumni. Gary Gerst, a 1961 engineering graduate, wanted to establish a program that would combat the near absence at Duke (as at most other universities) of viewpoints other than those of the political and cultural left. What emerged in the late 1990s was the Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies. The overarching objective of the program is to further the student’s appreciation for the role of freedom in the development of America’s economy and culture. Under the leadership of Professor Michael Gillespie, the Gerst program has become known for its intellectual challenges and academic rigor.

The Focus and Gerst programs are excellent examples of the ways universities can raise the level of undergraduate education by adding well-conceived offerings that give dedicated students new and superior options.

About the Author

Russell Nieli attended Duke University in the tumultuous years of the late 1960s. Graduating in 1970 (summa cum laude) with a B.A. degree in political science, he moved the following year to Princeton University, where he did graduate work in political philosophy. Nieli received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1979 and taught at several colleges before returning to Princeton in the late 1980s to take on a variety of teaching and advising tasks. Nieli is currently a lecturer in Princeton University’s politics department and a freshman advisor at Mathey College, one of Princeton’s five residential colleges. He has published an important study of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, numerous articles on current public policy issues, and an anthology of writings on the affirmative action controversy. He is currently working on a book related to issues of race in America.