IN NEED OF BROADER, DEEPER BASE
"Liberal education as currently practised in our universities
is not 'liberal' enough."
Editor's note: Constance Rooke is president
of the University of Winnipeg and former associate vice-president
(academic) of U of G. This is an excerpt from an address
she gave at a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
conference at the University of Toronto and is reprinted
from the U of T Bulletin.
We are, to some degree, guilty as charged of "structures"
- departments, degree programs, etc. - that are largely
geared to replicating the professoriate. We may have enacted
in a too literal and prescriptive (and therefore counter-productive)
manner William Wordsworth's poetic faith, and I quote: "What
we have loved/Others will love, and we will teach them how."
When one takes into account the proportion of our students
who pursue graduate study in humanities and social science
disciplines - between 14 and 17 per cent take master's degrees
and only three per cent do a PhD - the status quo seems
questionable. It appears we are concentrating too large
a share of our "design" energy and our resources
on a minority of students. If this educational track (a
high degree of specialization at the undergraduate level)
is not, in fact, optimal for the majority of students, shouldn't
we be asking ourselves what is optimal for them?
The problem is compounded by the fact that although specialization
is prefaced - for the sake of "breadth" - by half
a dozen introductory courses in an array of disciplines,
those courses are too often focused on preparing students
for advanced work in the discipline (learning the jargon
and methodology it is believed they will need as specialists),
even though five out of six students will go on to specialize
in some other discipline.
The issue is not only one of numbers. The public and our
funding bodies also regard the preparation of those other
students (the majority who enter the workforce directly
or pursue other professional/vocational training) as intrinsically
more important than the preparation of those who are bound
for the "ivory tower." It is clear that the public
and our funding bodies are preoccupied with the relationship
of education and the economy, with instrumentalist goals.
I make this point only to recall the obvious temper of our
times. We cannot ignore it. We do not have to accept it.
Indeed, we must resist the reduction of education to its
vocational and economic value. But we must respond on both
fronts. It is both foolhardy and unfair to our students
to do otherwise.
Fortunately, we do not have to choose between what David
Bentley has called "humanities for the sake of the
humanities" (the enrichment of consciousness) and the
role of the humanities with respect to producing the communication
skills, critical thinking, etc., that are of interest to
business. We can make both claims - the pragmatic and the
pure. And both ends can be better served by paying more
attention - and attention of a somewhat different kind -
to education in the humanities for students who will not
go on to specialize in the humanities.
The world of work and the human spirit (overlapping categories,
I would suggest) will both be strengthened if more people
are led to care about the humanities. I am assuming here
that the love of learning in the humanities and the acquisition
of transferable skills develop best in tandem. The force
of this claim is diminished when the humanities are too
narrowly construed as a guild or profession.
I am obviously not suggesting that we abandon preparation
for graduate study in our disciplines. But I think we should
ask ourselves whether we are not asking these students as
well to specialize too much, too soon. I believe we are.
I think a broader, deeper base would be better for the professoriate
of the future.
A shift of this kind would, of course, require that we
adjust the expectations of our graduate programs - not as
to standards, but as to the level of concentration required
at point of entry. I would go further: I believe our graduate
programs often foster an excessively narrow course of study
within the discipline, thus compounding narrowness created
at the undergraduate level and perpetuating it. I would
modify both in the interest of producing professors in the
humanities who will have a better chance of generating student
interest in the humanities, and a better chance of establishing
an essential public role for the humanities.
I do not believe that highly specialized research in the
humanities would wither under these reforms; I think it
would actually be strengthened. A broader base can provide
the context in which powerful links are made, strengthening
a very particularized edifice internally and providing the
"surround" that helps establish its importance.
It can also help create the ability and the will to communicate
more clearly to a wider audience.
The argument for education in the humanities is most effectively
- and, I think, most appropriately - positioned within the
argument for liberal education. If we stake our claim within
the more inclusive territory of liberal education, and can
establish that as the best possible base for professional
studies and vocational training and the changing world of
work, we can become "central" again as an essential
part of the centre. (I hope I have made clear that this
instrumental claim is not the only one I would make.) We
should also not mistake the centre of the university circle
for the whole or be seen (in our efforts to defend that
ground) to disparage the rest.
I do not believe that historical arguments for liberal
arts as the centre of the academy can succeed. Science and
social science and the humanities must occupy that centre
together and be declared by us as occupying it together.
Liberal education can, I think, be widely acknowledged as
"central," but only if we demonstrate its value
more clearly and only if we do not attempt to devalue the
We can establish the centrality of liberal education -
and the need to support it adequately - only if we demonstrate
clearly that liberal education delivers on its promises.
The development of transferable skills (not the only promise,
but a critical one) should be pursued more intentionally;
we should not assume it to be an inevitable byproduct of
disciplinary study. We should be looking at things like
"skills transcripts" and exit-testing to assess
and certify levels of attainment. And we should look at
curriculum in a more co-operative, integrated, "horizontal"
way, across courses and across departments, to ensure as
far as possible that all the necessary skills and capacities
are being developed in all our students.
Another of the promises of liberal education is that it
offers a broad intellectual base. But I must say that in
defending liberal education, I often experience some dissonance
between that breadth and the reality of what happens in
our universities. Specialists may tend to associate "depth"
with intellectual rigour and sophistication (higher-level
thinking, greater understanding) and "breadth"
with superficiality. If there is only so much butter and
we try to cover the whole loaf, the bread will have to be
very thinly spread. But in intellectual matters, the situation
is somewhat different: a broader view (of the discipline
and beyond the discipline) can also make it possible to
penetrate more deeply. My own view is that liberal education
as currently practised in our universities is not "liberal"
enough. It is too specialized - because we think this degree
of specialization is good for students and because we think
it's good for us.
I think we underestimate both our own ability and our students'
ability to bring intellectual rigour to courses that aren't
designed for specialists. We move students quickly into
specialization because we think that will stretch them intellectually
as nothing else can. But we have also designed a highly
specialized curriculum because universities are largely
made up of professors with quite particularized intellectual
passions. Most of us prefer to teach specialized courses
in our own research areas at the upper level; that's where
we feel most capable, most appreciated by students and most
What I am suggesting is that we should both require more
wide-ranging study and design more carefully more courses
for non-specialists that are aimed at a higher level of
understanding, many of which integrate perspectives from
science, social science and the humanities. This would not
be easy, but I think it would be a good thing for students
and faculty - and for the reputation of liberal education.
I also have a concern about two forces that may drive and
shape interdisciplinary (as well as disciplinary) courses
and programs in ways that are not optimal for students:
the research agendas and ideological agendas of faculty.
Clearly, the convergence of interdisciplinary research and
interdisciplinary education is an excellent thing, but only
to the extent that educational priorities are not skewed
by the priorities of a research agenda. I believe that ideological
agendas affecting interdisciplinary study are a legitimate
force in universities; I reject an ideal of value-free "objectivity"
in the professoriate.
At the same time, I am concerned that common cause on political
objectives plays too great a role in the creation and design
of some interdisciplinary courses and programs. Again, my
concern is that interdisciplinary courses and programs should
be designed for students.