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Atara Messinger, 21, is in her final undergraduate year at McMaster University, and feels core-curriculum programs like hers are “guiding you to where the world is going,” and yet are ‘so, so hard to get these days.’ (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Atara Messinger, 21, is in her final undergraduate year at McMaster University, and feels core-curriculum programs like hers are “guiding you to where the world is going,” and yet are ‘so, so hard to get these days.’ (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

OUR TIME TO LEAD

Why university students need a well-rounded education Add to ...

By the time Atara Messinger finished high school in Ottawa, she had already settled on a career in medicine. But first would come her undergraduate degree, and she had no desire to “just be another biomedical major.”She enjoyed chemistry and math, but also English, and chafed at programs that pushed her “in one direction.” In the end, she settled on McMaster University’s highly regarded arts and science program, which offered a wide-ranging timetable mixing courses clearly applicable to medicine (biochemistry) with some (philosophy and “math and society”) whose utility was less readily apparent.

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Like her parents, she worried briefly about what the program’s reputation for hard marking might mean for her medical-school applications, but that didn’t stop her. “I didn’t want to specialize,” says Ms. Messinger, now 21 and in the final year of the program, “because I know that I’m going to specialize for the rest of my life.”

Her quest for a broad education places Ms. Messinger in the vanguard, which is strange considering that is just what universities were said to provide before being pressed to produce graduates better equipped to fill the needs of the “real world.” Now, the tide seems to be turning, with business leaders lamenting that, although the new talent arriving at their doorsteps has deep technical knowledge, it lacks the skills needed to put this knowledge to full use.

Grads are said to have trouble communicating and working in teams, and often struggle to see complex problems from a variety of angles. Becoming a specialist, it seems, doesn’t mean losing sight of the fact that education is still defined as “acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally preparing intellectually for mature life.”

To ensure that students receive a broad foundation, universities are revisiting the concept of a “core” curriculum: a suite of courses that steer students through a combination of great texts, natural sciences and sometimes statistics, mathematics or languages.

“I think, increasingly, anything you learn is going to become obsolete within a decade,” says Lawrence Summers, a former president of Harvard University, “and so the most important kind of learning is about how to learn.”

John Galaty, who teaches anthropology at McGill University, adds: “To my mind, it’s very important to have some sort of basic education that has something to say to every student, and it seems to me it’s a little bit of a training in citizenship.”

And soon it may be a competitive necessity. McMaster’s program notwithstanding, Canada lags behind other countries, and now faces a new challenge: Asian universities, long renowned for their success at grooming well-drilled specialists, are suddenly leading a charge toward a well-rounded, liberal education.

Pericles Lewis, a Canadian-born English professor, is leading Yale University’s collaboration on a core curriculum with the National University of Singapore. So he has seen first-hand Asia’s burgeoning appreciation of learning that can “develop creativity” and make students “more versatile and capable of moving among different careers.”

Even though his program doesn’t launch until next August, it has already drawn applicants from as far away as China and South Sudan.

Despite the rise of specialized education over the years, broad-based learning has remained a hallmark of many U.S. institutions. The most celebrated examples are Columbia University and the University of Chicago, which have ensured that all undergrads take the same “great books” courses early in their degrees.

But many liberal-arts programs elsewhere – including some officially labelled core curricula – are simply “general education” systems. Rather than being told what to take, students are allowed to choose from a menu of courses in a range of disciplines – what Duke University professor and interdisciplinary-studies expert Cathy Davidson describes as “the duck, duck, goose model.”

“We’re great at giving people dribs and drabs of a little bit of everything; we’re terrible at showing students how they’re connected,” she says.

“If you learn a little programming and a little calculus, what does that have to do with the little ancient Greek?”

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