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The University of Waterloo’s Stratford Campus, a new digital media campus with an interdisciplinary graduate program in which students work with companies to tackle digital media problems. (Light Imaging)
The University of Waterloo’s Stratford Campus, a new digital media campus with an interdisciplinary graduate program in which students work with companies to tackle digital media problems. (Light Imaging)

Canadian University Report 2014: Innovation

The university debate: specialize or be a generalist? Add to ...

It was one of those beautiful moments of intellectual revelation that undergraduate education is all about. Evan Pivnick was reading Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer when he realized that climate change wasn’t just a problem of science but also of politics. “I used to think about it in an analog way,” recalls the University of Victoria political science graduate of his formerly single-channel thinking. All of a sudden, communication theory, psychology, economics and law seemed hugely relevant. “I didn’t want to take a narrow look at climate change. I wanted to study the whole spectrum.”

So Pivnick signed up for Victoria’s new minor in human dimensions of climate change. “I wouldn’t have encountered the hard science of climate change chemistry otherwise,” he says. “It also opened me up to economics. I realized I had certain biases so I took classes to understand and be conversational with economists.” After graduating this spring, he scored a job working for Andrew Weaver, a Victoria climate scientist who was recently elected the first Green Party MLA in British Columbia.

Pivnick says the interdisciplinary nature of his education strengthened his ability to consider problems from different perspectives and communicate with experts from disparate fields − a type of thinking universities are increasingly attempting to foster in their students. While interdisciplinary education is not necessarily new, unique approaches are popping up across the country that recognize that modern problems such as climate change − messy, complex beasts that won’t be solved by a single field − require thinkers with a broad wisdom not limited to a single field.

At McMaster University in Hamilton, for instance, the honours integrated science, arts and science, and bachelor of health sciences programs are inherently interdisciplinary. Since Dalhousie University in Halifax created the College of Sustainability in 2009, more than 1,000 students from almost every faculty have enrolled in a double major that involves working on sustainability challenges in the community with professors in the arts, business, science, engineering, health and design faculties.

Most of the 60 universities researched for the Canadian University Report offer relatively new interdisciplinary undergraduate programs in subjects as varied as cognitive science (Carleton University in Ottawa), peace and justice (University of Toronto), food systems (Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.) and community engagement (Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver). These programs go by many names − applied or integrated, multi- or trans-disciplinary, inquiry or problem-based − but they all have a fundamental assumption in common: Innovation, whether an idea for a new product or an approach to treating illness, often occurs at the intersection of disciplines.

“One of the dangers of disciplinary thinking is that you can get narrowed into a certain jargon that is familiar to your group of experts but virtually meaningless to other people,” says David Leach, director of the technology and society program at the University of Victoria. “Because we’re not within any faculty, our students have to find a way of communicating and collaborating with one another.”

Communication and collaboration, along with analysis, critical thinking, technological literacy and problem solving, make up a suite of intangibles sometimes called “21st-century skills,” that educators such as Leach argue students gain from a broad education.

This view of what skills are needed to thrive in the 21st century is but one side of a debate that has dominated discussion about the goals of postsecondary education in the past year. In reaction to the tough job market many new university graduates face, a growing chorus of politicians and pundits call for universities to narrow their focus and produce “job ready” graduates with the latest technical expertise; in this view, studying humanities or social sciences is seen as a waste of taxpayers’ money and students’ time because asking unanswerable questions does nothing to prepare one’s mind for the real world.

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