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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 ...

True core curricula are highly prescriptive, and dictate what a university feels every student needs to know, as well as how it all fits together. Professors and administrators have fought epic battles over how much Adam Smith undergrads should read and whether to add Toni Morrison to the syllabus.

But the resulting courses can “transverse the silos of education,” Prof. Davidson notes, thus encouraging students to explore fields outside their comfort zones and see humanities and sciences as complementary rather than two solitudes.

Due to the rising interest abroad, John W. Boyer, dean of the undergraduate college at Chicago, is getting used to playing tour guide for delegations that arrive from Asia seeking advice on how to create a core curriculum of their own.

Columbia, too, has entertained visitors from China, India, Argentina, Spain and Germany eager to scrutinize its 93-year-old core, says Kathryn Yatrakis, dean of academic affairs. “The way [such countries] have structured their higher education, where students have to specialize very early on in what they want to do, they’re very fearful – I would say correctly so – that this is not really serving students well as we bumble and lurch into the 21st century.”

Yale’s joint venture will create a special college in Singapore offering a four-year program that caters to students across the region. They will start by spending a third of their time on a mandatory “common curriculum” that spans great texts, sciences and social studies. Even after choosing a major, they will take interdisciplinary courses that cover such topics as climate change, public health and politics.

“We’ve got lots and lots of demand,” Prof. Lewis, the college’s inaugural president, says by phone from his new base.

Attracting applications from Korea, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nigeria as well as China and South Sudan tells him that “the whole idea of a liberal-arts education is catching on.”

But not in Canada. Those who try to expand broad-based learning here face stiff obstacles.

The concept is hardly unknown. The University of King’s College in Halifax launched its renowned “foundation year” four decades ago. In the great-books tradition, it organizes landmark texts into six historical periods and immerses students in small-group settings with a heavy emphasis on frequent writing assignments. As many as 900 applications are received each year, but only a third of them are accepted.

First offered in 1981, Ms. Messinger’s program at McMaster accepts about one applicant in 10 and is distinctive in ensuring that students leap between the humanities and math and science. Writing, critical thinking and reasoning are emphasized, but also “social awareness and increased community engagement,” says its director, Jean Wilson.

A handful of others have sprung up, including Carleton University’s College of the Humanities and Vancouver Island University’s liberal studies program, but most have remained elite, niche offerings within a university system that has 1.2 million students, admitting fewer than 100 people a year, often through fiercely competitive admissions.

Why the lack of growth? A recent attempt by McGill serves as a cautionary tale. Arts Legacy was introduced in 2005 as a first-year option, described by principal Heather Munroe-Blum at the time as “wonderful” and “innovative.”

Prof. Galaty, then associate dean of arts, designed it to go beyond the humanities and instill in students what he calls “an integrated sense of world culture.”

Ninety students took four half-semester courses consecutively, each organized by historical period from the ancient world to modern times. Subjects embraced a variety of disciplines and were taught comparatively, usually by two professors from different departments.

Prof. Galaty’s hope – “and maybe, it was foolhardy,” he now says – was to create a core program that could be applied across the campus,

Instead, Arts Legacy shut down last year, despite rave reviews from students, to be replaced by a liberal-arts program largely focused on the humanities. “We carried out an experiment, and I think it succeeded in everything except being inexpensive,” Prof. Galaty explains.

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