As another year comes to an end, some students are consumed with internecine fights about fees and referenda, while others are struggling to finish their term and find summer work in a tough market. With deep cuts expected in the provincial budget and endowment income growing slowly, the administration frets about how to make up the difference. Faculty worry about the next round of cuts to their departments, and what they see as increasingly direct challenges to academic freedom and the tenure system that have defined universities for decades.
Through all this worrying, however warranted, the members of this university, administrators, faculty and students alike, tend to lose sight of this place’s purpose. Nowhere is this truer than in undergraduate arts and science. It is clear that undergraduate education cannot be reduced to training a new generation of workers for the “knowledge economy” nor can it simply be a time for self-discovery and exploration. The needs of our country are too great and the cost of education too high for either of these purposes to be enough to animate and guide undergraduate education at this university.
As a university, and indeed as a country, we expect so much of university graduates. Some will go on to graduate school and make discoveries that will change the lives of millions and save the lives of millions more. Others will follow the long line of extraordinary men and women who have left this university and entered public service. Still others still will build companies that form the engines of this country’s economy for decades to come. Given what we expect from our graduates, the university has a responsibility to equip them with the tools they need to achieve and exceed our high expectations.
This is something we cannot hope to do unless we develop a clear sense of purpose for undergraduate education. The way to do so is to think of undergraduate education as a kind of professional education, directed not to the usual professions of law, medicine, or education, but those ancient and essential professions of citizen and leader. At the undergraduate level, the priority should not be to produce future art historians or sociologists. Rather, the goals should be to ensure that students graduate with the skills and judgment they need to be good citizens and leaders, no matter which walk of life they pursue.
This would begin in first- and second-year. No matter their program of study, arts and science students would be expected to develop the fundamental skills needed to be a good citizen. These skills include critical reading, persuasive writing, public speaking, and quantitative reasoning. This would ensure that students would be well placed to understand problems — whether big or small — develop ways to address to them, and communicate their ideas to others. These skills would be as valuable to a human biology student, who might learn them by examining a public health problem, as to a linguistics student, who could develop them by learning about literacy.
In third- and fourth-year, students would be given the opportunity to consolidate these skills and develop judgment about how to use them by applying them to real-world problems. This might be done as much through course work as through cooperative education and internships. This too would be valuable to students, no matter their field of study. Restoring purpose to undergraduate education will not be easy, but the country and the university, not to mention students, will surely be richer for it.
This is Patrick Baud’s final column for The Varsity.