What would be gained and what would be lost if we abolished majors and departments? What if, instead, schools were organized around problems students were interested in?
Is there really such a thing as an English problem? There are, of course, math problems, but does math alone ever solve anything? Not without implementation, a budget, science, writing, and so on.
What if students began their freshman years by setting out to solve some problem of their choosing, working in teams or loose networks of students and instructors. You could major in, let's say, Climate Change, and study the history, literature, science, and math (even the sociology or psychology) of the problem as you worked toward the completion of a project designed to interact with the outside world.
A team of Climate Change majors would be allotted a budget to be spent on materials and to pay for instructor/consultants. (Maybe they would actually have to raise the funds by writing grant proposal.) They could set certain goals to publish, host an event, create a website, or lobby for a piece of legislation.
There would be roles for all "majors," such as accountants, programmers, writers, scientists. Maybe students wold work on one project per year, and then switch majors. (Sophomore year: Artificial Intelligence. The team poet might work with the programmer to create artificially generated poetry, or to write sharp criticism of that from a humanist perspective.)
Not only would students be applying their knowledge and creating something new, they would also be contributing directly to society and making good on the taxpayers' investments.
I have been thinking of such a re-organization, and trying, on a smaller scale, to encourage autonomy in writing classes by asking students to find any topic of interest to them and becoming experts through reading, thinking, and writing. After completing a traditional academic research paper, I plan on spending the rest of the semester working with them on some creative project based on their topic or problem. Not sure where it's all going yet: presentation, novella, electronic light show...could be anything.
Here is a related excerpt from the book I'm reading, Deschooling Society. Though written in the early 1970's, Ivan Illich was anticipating the new possibilities that the internet affords:
But the idea remains the same: they should be able to meet around a problem chosen and defined by their own initiative. Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.