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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.

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?”

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.

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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