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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 ...

Assigning multiple professors to a class and hiring instructors to lead small groups was costly, but not the only roadblock. For example, upon completing Arts Legacy, students needed credit for their special first-year courses to move on, but Prof. Galaty says some departments simply refused to recognize them.

Difficulties like this illustrate why, attractive as it may seem, a common curriculum has found little traction: Even expanding an existing one can be a logistical nightmare.

Administrators’ efforts are often opposed by departments that assert their independence, compete for resources and guard their best teachers for fear of taking attention away from their main missions. Even the professors may balk if asked to teach students from other faculties.

These challenges are not restricted to Canada, says Prof. Summers, who once led a rancorous bid to refresh Harvard’s general education program, which he felt “had atrophied.”

“They would be brave individuals who will undertake this,” he says, quoting a predecessor who compared curriculum reform to trying to move a cemetery.

Harvard’s fiery debate was not unique, evoking memories of “the core wars” of 1999 when the University of Chicago revealed plans to adjust and scale back its storied core curriculum. “There’s always a controversy when you reform something,” admits Dean Boyer, “and then, after a couple of years, it becomes the new normal.”

But not all the resistance stems from a turf war.

Many prospective students – as well as their parents – still consider liberal-style learning impractical. “Even if they find it interesting, are they going to be employable?” says Maureen Okun, chair of liberal studies at Vancouver Island University. “They worry a lot about that.”

And some educators accuse employers of sending conflicting signals.

“The CEOs of many companies would say to me, ‘Look, we need a broad liberal-arts education. We don’t need students who are trained to do a particular job,’ ” says Gerhard Casper, former president of Stanford University.

“But when their recruiters came to campus, they wanted something much narrower.”

Whatever the obstacles, the fact remains that, to stay globally competitive, nations like Canada need populations that are intellectually agile and well-trained.

Duke’s Prof. Davidson has given dozens of talks to corporations over the past year, and she says she hears repeatedly that the Googles of the world may require and value technical ability, but they reward those who also have softer skills and cultural sophistication first and foremost. And now rising economic powerhouses in the East have received the message, and are acting on it.

Ms. Messinger believes that the broad, interdisciplinary education she has enjoyed is “guiding you to where the world is going,” but she can see from her perch at McMaster that it is still “so, so hard to get these days.”

So how will Canada respond?

Harvard’s Prof. Summers acknowledges that expanding core curricula will never be easy, given Canada’s education landscape, but he thinks that, with vocal leadership and enough pressure for change, it is possible.

“I think it takes students’ expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo. I think it takes strong leadership of institutions who are prepared to ask faculty to do things that aren’t faculty’s first choice,” he says. “And I think it requires creating some significant successes early on.”

As Prof. Davidson says, “The world knows there’s a crying demand. ... Students have figured it out, but academics have not.”

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