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Why we undervalue a liberal arts education

It’s because too many graduates complete their degrees without an ability to articulate what they have learned.

by Adam Chapnick

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Tough economic times are inevitably difficult for supporters of the liberal arts. When governments cut back, they prioritize. And when it comes to education, the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) almost inevitably win out.

Recently, the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario committed over $900,000 to a Youth STEM Initiative. According to the press release that accompanied the announcement, the program was meant “to expand, enhance and coordinate the reach and impact of educational outreach programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for children and youth in kindergarten through grade 12.”

More tellingly, it went on, Youth STEM would “encourage young people to pursue further studies and careers in these fields, creating a future talent pool that is well-positioned to fuel business innovation and growth in southern Ontario.”

This past September, the provincial government of New Brunswick and the federal government invested over $350,000 in a similar program, known as ILLUMINATE. The aim, once again, was to “encourage the development of the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians necessary for New Brunswick’s economy.”

The message coming from the policy world is clear: if you want a job, study math and science.

A common refrain among those of us who teach in the arts and humanities is to decry how governments, and perhaps the public at large, just don’t get it. If only they understood that the value of a liberal education cannot just be measured in dollars and cents, we are known to lament. What about the role of the arts in promoting democratic citizenship? Or in fostering critical thinking? Or in creating the entrepreneurial spirit that is so necessary for innovation?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about who they are, and what I’ve realized is rather unsettling: many of them are our graduates. Six of the last eight ministers of education in my home province of Ontario (along with the current premier of the province) have BAs from Ontario universities. More broadly, across the country, thousands of Canadians graduate with degrees in the arts and humanities every year. And many of them are in positions that affect government decisions about the future of postsecondary education.

Why, then, aren’t more of our current and former students speaking out on our behalf?

I think part of the problem is the way that we have taught them. Too many BA graduates complete their degrees without an ability to articulate what they have learned, or at least what we have encouraged them to learn.

What’s more, too many who indeed do try to speak positively about their postsecondary experience produce statements that are so generic (for example, university taught me organizational and time-management skills) that they end up undermining the importance of our disciplines – there’s no reason to believe that majoring in English teaches you more about being organized than majoring in physics does.

The solution, I think, lies in the way that we conceive, develop and then promote our value-added bona fides. Academic and administrative leaders in the liberal arts and humanities must launch a serious campaign to ensure that (1) instructors in our disciplines are, collectively, exceptional teachers with genuine expertise in how learning works and that (2) students who graduate with liberal arts degrees themselves understand what learning means and its implications for their future careers. The two goals are inter-related.

The perceived benefit of immersion in the STEM disciplines is the direct relevance of the degree to the real world – the content. I think that the BA can eventually be seen to be equally relevant, if we provide our students with a better understanding of the learning process. But that will only happen through more focused, scientifically aware teaching.

It follows that we should require all of our graduate students to take a comprehensive course in postsecondary teaching before they complete their degrees. (I envision such a course being taught by someone with a scholarly background in educational development or cognitive psychology but developed in consultation with faculty from the students’ academic discipline). In the future, no instructors in the liberal arts should ever face undergraduate students without having a reasonable, up-to-date understanding of pedagogy.

Similarly, once our BA candidates have declared their majors, they should be required to complete a year-long course about how learning is understood and fostered in their discipline. Ideally, such a course would be co-taught by professors of education or cognitive psychology and tenured members of their home department. This joint approach would reinforce the message that learning is not just an academic specialty but also a critical life skill.

This is not to say that best teaching and learning practices should not be integrated into all of our courses, or that other disciplines should not adopt the same approach in setting requirements for their degrees. Rather, it is to suggest that it is time to institutionalize the value of a liberal arts education in a way that we never have before.

If we give our students the tools they need to recognize the practical usefulness of what they can learn in our classrooms, it is more likely that they will take care of ensuring that we receive sufficient government and private sector support in the future.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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Comments on this Article

I find this article very interesting. I am a liberal arts (BA) graduate. I think BA or STEM graduates should not stop with what their programs have taught them. There is so much to learn in life that those who graduate from either of these programs should pursue life-long learning.

Posted by Jenny Majarreis, Mar 6, 2013 1:35 PM


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