Skip to main content

“What’s that going to get you?” my mechanical-engineer father asked when I enrolled as an undergraduate in English and history at McGill University. The answer, we both knew, was “nothing,” at least as far as future employability was concerned.

This didn’t bother me. Spending a few years cultivating one’s mind was still, in the late eighties, considered by many (if not my father) an acceptable precursor to engaging with the “real world,” one made more attractive by its affordability. Montreal rents, dépanneur plonk, and McGill’s tuition were all dirt cheap – less than a thousand dollars a year for the latter when I attended.

My experience there was fairly close to Northrop Frye’s description of university life in a 1984 NFB documentary, as one of “attachment without withdrawal” from society. “Education is not a preparation for life,” he said, “because life won’t stay around to get prepared for. To the extent that it’s a preparation for anything, it’s a preparation for an anti-climax, with how to live with a lower rate of intellectual intensity.”

Even as Frye was waxing poetic about them though, the humanities were already in crisis. The subject was given new fuel recently by a substantive article in The New Yorker, which cited some eye-opening statistics about the precipitous drop in enrolment in university humanities programs.

I saw anecdotal evidence of this when my son graduated from his downtown Toronto high school last spring. As each student mounted the stage, their future plans were announced. Lots were off to study STEM subjects. A program combining business and the arts was popular. Not one student, though, was headed for straight-up humanities.

Some of the reasons for this are explored in the New Yorker piece. Here in Canada, the advent of “performance-based funding,” where postsecondary institutions get funded based, in part, on students’ postgraduation incomes, does not bode well for humanities departments in some provinces.

It has also created a conundrum. To keep the lights on, publicly assisted universities are forced to admit functionally illiterate students who wouldn’t have passed muster in the humanities programs of previous eras. But nor is there a business model for establishing a physical university that caters to a literate population.

High-paying STEM jobs are becoming more attainable for those without a degree

For many of these problems – reduced enrolment, moribund funding, student illiteracy, even the dawn of ChatGPT – Edward Tilson believes he has the solution. In 2018, Tilson, a Whitby, Ont.-based academic and French Renaissance specialist, co-founded the Humanities Digital Degrees Project with the aim of establishing a bilingual online humanities university.

That institution, whose tentative name is Humanities University of Canada – Université des humanités du Canada, will offer three- and four-year bachelor’s degree programs in French and English literature, philosophy and history. It will be the first dedicated humanities institution in Ontario, and (likely) in Canada. Pending ministerial approval, Tilson, the school’s president and rector, expects it will be up and running by 2025, and is currently looking for people interested in serving on the institution’s Board of Governors and Board of Visitors.

The project itself was conceived almost a decade ago, out of Tilson’s frustration with trends in postsecondary education (his last teaching gig was at Trent University; he’s now full time, per ministry requirements, with the HDDP); in particular, the replacement of humanities and literature with identity-based “studies” departments (feminist, postcolonial, gender etc.). Though they cover some of the same ground as literature programs, studies, Tilson says, tend to be deductive instead of inductive in that they apply existing theories to material instead of encouraging students to develop their own original interpretations of it.

Because studies programs have low literacy requirements, it’s now possible, he says, to obtain a degree in English or French without having read an entire book. Many mid-level universities no longer offer English or French literature degrees at all.

That will not be the case with Humanities University, where the onus will be on reading, lots of it, and specifically “primary texts” (a.k.a. the canon), which, on the proposed English curriculum on the HDDP’s website, spans Chaucer to Chinua Achebe. And while some consider very idea of a canon problematic these days, Tilson isn’t interested in courting controversy, or engaging in culture wars. He insists that the goal at the heart of the humanities is both emancipatory and democratic. All the texts his school will teach represent a “dialogic tradition,” and have stood the test of time. The most recent book on its English syllabus, Salman Rushdie’s Shame, was published 35 years ago, in 1988.

The texts themselves will be read on digital devices and extensively annotated and hyperlinked by the school’s professors, who Tilson expects to be a combination of retired or semi-retired academics (who likely share his disillusionment with the current direction of postsecondary education), and recent PhDs.

Quizzes will be administered regularly to ensure comprehension, grading based on a major term paper and presentations that students livestream to their classmates. Because students will submit work in progress via a secure portal, Tilson is also confident the program will be ChatGPT-proof (though presumably the type of student the school will attract will not be the kind that would abase themselves by having an AI bot write their papers).

While it will be fully online, the university will not resemble “distance learning” programs of the past in that there will be no videotaped lectures. This means no class discussions either, but as Tilson points out, those have never been a part of big undergraduate survey courses anyway. Not relying on bricks and mortar will allow the university to cast a global net for “highly literate” students, and to keep costs down. Tuition will be just $5,000 a year.

We all become our parents, so I asked Tilson what his graduates will “get” with their humanities education. His answer was expectedly erudite, with soupçon of Frye: “The rigour of an authentic humanities degree equips those who complete it with literary and intellectual abilities far exceeding the demands of professional life. Such a degree is not just a superior preparation for employment, though. For students accustomed to the life of the mind, a humanities education is a consolation for employment.”