Gateway to broader horizons: depth and breadth in learning

In recent years, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has dramatically expanded interdisciplinary cooperation between its faculties and departments, radically increasing students’ exposure to courses, materials and ideas from outside their areas of academic concentration. This marks a distinct departure from the past, as Israel’s top universities have traditionally expected that students would arrive at their gates already in possession of a broad based, general education.

However, the Hebrew University and the Faculty of Humanities are breaking with that pattern. They recognize that changes in Israel’s national school system and the increasing interconnectedness and complexity of modern society and academia require a serious reevaluation of earlier approaches.

The Faculty of Humanities in particular has been a pioneer in recognizing the need to broaden academic approaches and methodology for the 21st century, all without sacrificing the essential specialized, in-depth study which has earned the Faculty an international reputation for academic and research excellence. In 2006, the Faculty chose to undertake a massive restructuring aimed at increasing interdisciplinary cooperation and intellectual exploration among its students and faculty. As part of this effort, the Faculty divided itself into five broad-based schools — Philosophy and Religion, History, Languages, Literature and the Arts — and began offering basic Gateway courses.

The Gateway courses give all Humanities students an opportunity to take classes which were previously taught within the Faculty’s 23 departments and available only to students studying in that specific field. This ambitious effort — a groundbreaking innovation in Israeli academia — was pioneered by the School of History’s introductory course to world history, launched in 1999, which initiated a larger framework for historical inquiry. “It has broadened the intellectual horizons of our students enormously,” says course creator Dr. Diego Olstein. “They ask new types of questions that touch on the political and economic impact of events, while there is stronger comparative and relational thinking within a global framework.”

Supported by the Mandel Initiatives in Humanities and Liberal Arts, the Gateway courses are designed to help students view their discipline from a broader perspective, acquire additional tools in specific modes of thinking, and facilitate interaction between students and teachers from different fields. “We have to prepare our students for the new frontiers of science where the seams between disciplines meet,” says former Faculty of Humanities Vice Dean for Teaching and the Leo A. Mayer Professor of Muslim Art and Archaeology Professor Rachel Milstein, who oversaw the initiation of the Gateway program.

Thanks to this exciting new program, Humanities students are now taking Gateway courses in addition to regular coursework required for their major. The Gateway courses give students the freedom to explore topics outside their primary areas of concentration. Instead of taking double majors, they can now pursue one major and simultaneously study for a minor and/or complementary studies. Their Gateway courses are in another department within their school but, as the program advances, courses will be offered between schools. Every student must also take a course in basic academic writing, skills and methodology.  “Without foregoing our hallmark depth of knowledge, we are offering breadth of knowledge.” says Prof. Milstein. “Cross-fertilization cannot be overrated. In my own field, the best Islamic art was created when Islam met other cultures. Out of such encounters, the finest works of art are created.”

But the Faculty of Humanities isn’t ready to stop at just broadening the horizons of its own students. Rather, by playing a major role in the University’s new Cornerstones initiative, the Faculty of Humanities is helping to provide exciting new opportunities for interdisciplinary study and academic exploration to all undergraduate students. The Cornerstones liberal arts and sciences program was inaugurated in the 2009/2010 academic year and is supported by the Mandel Initiatives in Humanities and Liberal Arts and Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation).

An academic revolution, Cornerstones is the first program of its kind at any Israeli university, and includes all faculties and schools. This University-wide endeavor divides the academic landscape into three domains — natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Undergraduates major in one and must take Cornerstones courses from the other two. According to Vice-Rector and the Gerald M. Friedman Professor of Geology Oded Navon, who is overseeing Cornerstones: “Through Cornerstones, we hope to give students an enriched experience at several levels – a more encompassing general perspective; exposure to diverse research methodologies and thinking in disciplines other than their own; the opportunity to taste another field before committing to a major; and knowledge that will serve them in life.”