Sometimes I find there are threads of conversation that keep coming up with friends, colleagues, and students, both in person and online. Recently one of those threads, which has also recurred in my own blog posts, is that involving the focus on skills and outcomes in university education and the apparently perpetual critique of universities’ capacity to help students gain what they need to be “successful” (in the workplace and in life more generally).
Over Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, the Globe & Mail began a two-week-long series on postsecondary education in Canada (full disclosure: I also participated in this series). One of the themes explored in print has been that of the “core curriculum” vs. “specialization”, and which one works best when it comes to preparing students for developing their careers. In particular, articles by James Bradshaw and Cathy Davidson explored the benefits and difficulties of advocating a curriculum shift towards less specialized, more “liberal arts”-style approaches.
The question of curriculum in university education is posed (in the articles) primarily in terms of a broad-based approach involving common “core” elements determined by the university, or on the other hand, more student choice and more specialized options. The appeal of a liberal arts education is that it’s “broad” and supposedly flexible; flexibility, we’re told, is what’s required for a successful career these days.
But nothing is flexible if you aren’t aware of the options it opens up. One perennial irony is that it’s almost impossible to gain the benefits of this kind of education without abandoning a certain kind of instrumentalism–the exact kind that students are encouraged to have when they select university programs. Traditionally, this freedom from anxiety about specific outcomes has been the privilege of the elite–as has the cultural capital required to make the most of liberal arts education. Now that universities have expanded beyond catering to existing elites, and costs have increased, the question of instrumentalism has become more urgent. This is also part of why we now see more explanations of the liberal arts as having a “utility” that is still translatable within economic logic.
It’s no surprise then, that James Bradshaw notes “many prospective students–as well as their parents–still consider liberal-style learning impractical.” This attitude is related to the emphasis on skills and outcomes. The focus on and demand for “marketable” skills and job outcomes places pressure on any debate about the components of education, along with the argument that employers require or demand certain skills (and that universities are not providing these–or students are not choosing to acquire these “useful” skills). Yet there’s no point in saying students need a particular skill, without placing that skill in context. Skills tend to be acquired in the pursuit of some larger interest or goal that motivates us. And that goal, that interest, that passion–that’s what students need, not just whatever is deemed most marketable in the moment.
Perhaps this is my preferred line of reasoning for a kind of common curriculum designed to provide “grounding” for students not only with some breadth of knowledge, but with a sense of the way university education works. Undergraduate students frequently don’t have a coherent path mapped out for themselves, unless they have access to cultural capital that allows it. For many, university education is the way in which discoveries and decisions about careers are made–as well as the means of carrying out those decisions. All this can generate a lot of anxiety about what the “outcomes” might be. Are we acknowledging the situation students face, or are we constructing systems that are based on the assumption that students engage in fully-informed decision-making behaviour at an early stage, with no “information asymmetry” involved?
I also agree that what Mark Kingwell describes in his article, “a sense of intellectual connection, of how things fit together and influence each other”, is a large part of the answer. Students need to see those connections between different areas of knowledge, because through those connections (new) meanings emerge. The specialization of knowledge has helped us to gain deeper understanding, but it can also hinder the learning process because specialized knowledge can be taught without reference to a holistic context. Yet we’ve spent a very long time encouraging the fragmentation of the university into different areas that may or may not be engaged in (or be willing to engage in) interdisciplinary exchanges. This fragmentation has affected not only organizational forms and policies such as funding structures, but also the culture of academe.
It’s really metacognition–“thinking about thinking”, or as Lawrence Summers described it, learning “about how to learn”–that is at the core of what students need, no matter what their area of study. It’s something that underpins critical thinking, aids our adaptation to new environments and experiences, and helps us understand our strengths and how to use them. Students tend to do best when they know their own interests and talents, and are themselves determined to work to take things further. Without that desire, how can learning happen at all? This kind of self-awareness is vital, aided by advice, mentoring, and a pedagogy that must overcome the theory/practice, academic/“real-world”, and content/process divides that permeate so much of our thinking about education. An old adage applies: this is the difference between giving someone a fish, and teaching them to catch their own.
So instead of questioning (for example) “are students getting the ‘right’ skills to get a job?”, we could ask: can we foster (self-) knowledge and skills at the same time, and how will that look for different students with various needs and resources? I think it’s questions like those, rather than the ones about market demand, that are central to the kinds of problems we’re trying to address now in university education.