The loss of public citizenship

… By the short sighted de-prioritization of liberal education

In an 1995 Massey lecture – a lecture series that perhaps unintentionally celebrates the core value of liberal education, John Ralston Saul reflected that, “what the corporatist approach seems to miss is the simple role of higher education – to teach thought, a student who graduates with mechanistic skills and none of the habits of thought has not been educated. Such people will have difficulty playing their role as citizens.”

Our current environment de-prioritizes education funding, despite the governments reassurance of their commitment to knowledge economies. By politicizing the source of education funding, governments are giving institutions no choice but to stop trying to teach thought and instead capitalize on teaching skill.

Saul’s comments speak to the whole, rather the sum of education’s parts. While universities can specialize and promote excellence in specific fields to gain notoriety and academic fame, a university should first be about the creation of a citizen.  An informed, thoughtful, critical citizen.

It is plain to see the distribution of grant funding and the new emphasis on commercial science creates inequality in a learning institution. Institutions are forced to prioritize their services based on private sources of funding. In an environment of commercialization, the opportunity to achieve a true liberal education is diminished with each faculty’s isolation.

And how can that be so, when the whole of a person’s education should be greater than the sum of its parts. Though post-secondary institutions strive to give a student all the skills necessary to be a knowledge driven, critical citizen; the decreased emphasis on the value of a well rounded citizen niches students, and limits their ability to grow intellectually.

Looking at the current environment with a wider lens, it can be said that the basic value of knowledge has changed. What is supposedly valued, both psychologically and tangibly, is in the specifics. While we see this in institutions, what is desired by a spectrum of economic indicator is far different. Our institutions are failing to prepare their students for a life of good citizenship, and personal success.

Students entering post-secondary now are being offered less breadth, and more depth, and it is happening in every institution in this province. And while universities de-fund programs critical to a true liberal education, the economy, depressed as it may be, is placing a renewed value on the qualities a liberal education cultivates.

A study done by Hart Research Institute in Washington, D.C. in 2009 showed that, “employers want their employees to use a broader set of skills and have higher levels of learning and knowledge than in the past to meet the increasingly complex demands they will face in the workplace.”

The study’s findings are echoed in comments made by Canadian business owners. The desire for people with passion, critical and independent thinking skills and complex problem solving skills is strong in private industry. In an economically strained environment, hiring isn’t about just having physical bodies anymore; it is about finding the right person(s) for the job.

A degree is thought to develop a mind that is able to analyze methodology, critically think, and understanding language, form, and structure. Those values don’t correspond to a specific discipline; they are necessary skills to be successful in any discipline.

It is short sighted for institutions to take emphasis off a well-rounded education. While the economy fluctuates, while the market changes rapidly, what matters in the 21st century are those who can use critical thinking skills cultivated in the 18th century to be able to deal with the challenges of today.

Joseph Munsterman said that, “a liberal education should then be the main type of education given in institutions of higher education if we want to have a truly free and open society.”

A free and open society, something many Albertans take pride in. The very slogan of Alberta is, “Freedom to create, Spirit to achieve.” To maintain the quality of this statement, our society needs those with that spirit, in a free environment.

A liberal education bequeaths an understanding of the human condition. That can prove ten times more useful than a specialized knowledge in any field over time.

Successful citizens are those with drive, and initiative. They create out of nothing due to necessity. Because what it means to be a citizen of Canada is always changing, there needs to be those who can adapt with the changes of tomorrow while understanding the nuances of human need in our world today.

Originally printed in Vue Weekly’s Education 2010 special section – August 2010

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