Putting the “Uni-” into University: Thoughts on the Bachelor of Arts Draft Proposal | By Christopher Berger

The Bachelor of Arts (BA) has been, along with the Bachelor of Science, a sine qua non of higher education for as long as there have been universities.  I believe it would not be an exaggeration to say that a university lacking a BA program cannot be properly called a university.  A university’s strength is tied directly to the strength of its BA program.  The renewal process currently underway at the University of Alberta therefore provides us with an ideal occasion to revisit what a BA can and should be, and what it provides its graduates.

Students either eying or currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts at the U of A will likely be familiar with the draft proposal outlining some changes to the program. For those who may be unfamiliar with the proposal, its goal is to “renew” the BA program over the course of five years in order to make it “simpler, more attractive, and sustainable.”  Flexibility and diversity are predominant themes in the schema, emphasizing varied approaches to learning, including “hands-on” methods such as community service.  The chief reason for the renewal hinges on the current core requirements built into the program and the allegedly doubtful relevance of their distribution model for students and graduates.

The argument runs that the core requirements do not contribute much to students’ learning and that, without them, students would be able to sample a greater breadth of what the Faculty and the University have to offer, and focus more on the area of their choosing. If students enrolling in Arts are not required to take those mandatory credits, they will be able instead to tailor their course schedule to align more closely with their interests.  And from the administrative point of view, such a change could also make the U of A more competitive among its peers; for instance, a more attractive option for prospective transfer students for whom the current core requirements may be a barrier or a nuisance. Finally, some believe a common core “forces a degree of similarity across disciplines and ignores the distinct differences between the disciplines.”  The proposal is concluded with three recommendations from the Dean’s Executive Committee:

  1. Remove all current BA core requirements;
  2. Introduce a requirement for six credits in a non-Arts discipline; and,
  3. Remove the requirement that all students who declare a BA major complete a minor. (Students will have the opportunity, but not the obligation, to declare a minor or multiple minors.)

No longer a student in the Faculty of Arts – I graduated in 2011 – I don’t have an immediate stake in the outcome of the proposals. But as a beneficiary of the existing program, and as someone who has spent significant time reflecting on the meaning of education and of the arts, humanities, and social sciences in particular, I do feel a need to raise certain concerns about the new proposal.  We, as members of a community, all have a vested interest in the next generation’s education, and on a personal note, I don’t want students to miss out on something I feel is important, and from which I greatly benefited.

Without a common core, education is groundless and ultimately futile. That is my bottom line, and my aim here is to qualify and defend it.

The premise of a common core is that there are certain fundamental things a person needs to have or know in order properly to be called an educated or “cultivated” human being. The concept of education presupposes some notion of what kind of person we want to raise and cultivate.  As we are accustomed to saying and hearing in most public discussion of education policy, we are raising the next generation to be responsible, principled, productive citizens.  Presumably, there would then be some standard by which we would measure or qualify such a citizen.

As a liberal democratic community, we prize toleration, universal human dignity and agency, constant learning and personal growth, and individual freedom. We also believe that being informed on the state of the scientific fields, on local and global affairs, on diverse cultures, nations, and faiths, and on the fine arts, are important for cultivating those principles – and rightly so.  We believe that being able to stand on one’s own feet, to make one’s own conscious decisions free of imposed faith or other belief, is fundamental to individual autonomy.  In sum, we have a unified, coherent vision of what an educated, responsible, free adult ought to be.  At least, we have it in theory.

The practice stands on shakier ground today. A few decades ago, a Canadian thinker, George Parkin Grant, wrote an essay in which he diagnosed our universities as having become “multiversities” (interested readers can find the essay in his book, Technology & Justice).  I spoke above of a unifying, coherent vision, a goal of education.  This, says Grant, is precisely what we have lost.  What we now have are not uni-versities but multi-versities, disjointed hodgepodges of faculties, departments, and courses that have lost a unifying vision of the educational mission and have no coherent endgame.

I also said above that we, liberal democrats, esteem diversity and individual freedom. So, how can the multiversity be a bad thing?  On the face of it, this would seem to be an improvement, and Grant would seem to be overly old-school in his lament, not to say reactionary.  But let’s think about this a little more carefully, and to get us started, let’s read this excerpt from Grant’s essay:

“Each department of these institutions, indeed almost each researcher, carries on the project of reason by approaching different objects. The limitations of the human mind in synthesizing facts necessitates the growing division of research into differing departments and further subdivisions.  This paradigm of knowledge makes it therefore appropriate to speak of the multiversity.”

This seems like an uncontroversial and plausible enough definition. While the full title of the essay is “Faith and the Multiversity,” it is not “faith” understood in the simply or merely religious sense, but faith somewhat more idiosyncratically conceived that Grant is concerned with, so we ought not to let that word put us off (I feel I should disclose that I’m an atheist).  Borrowing from Simone Weil, Grant stresses that he understands faith as “the experience that the intelligence is enlightened by love.” Clarifying further, he says that love is “consent to the fact that there is authentic otherness.”  Novelist Iris Murdoch, for another example, said something similar, writing that love is the “realization that something other than oneself is real” (for the sake of humanizing this, we realize that this is what happens when we fall in love with another person: that person becomes “real” for us in the most profound sense – they become more important than our own selves.)  So we can infer from this that Grant is concerned with something more “holistic” or universal, a larger view of the world than what he thinks the multiversity allows for.

Not to get too caught up in exegesis or definitions, we can move on from this having learned of a perspective that sees a multiversity of unrelated disciplines on the one hand, and a university with a unified or universal vision on the other. The former would presuppose a world and therefore an individual existence that cannot conceive of the whole or grasp one’s place in it – it is radically narrow and inward looking.  The latter would presuppose the existence of a coherent whole and the possibility of grasping one’s place within it – it is open-ended and outward looking.

The irony of it all is that the graduate of the multiversity, in his inward orientation, loses view of his own self, of who and what he is. His narrowness and disconnectedness from everything around him means he cannot grasp his own nature, i.e. how he relates to anything outside of himself.  On the other hand, the ideal graduate of the university, in order to understand the whole of things, needs to understand first that he is a part of it, and second, how he relates to it.  In sum, he understands himself; he has self-knowledge.  Which of these two is better equipped to live a life respectful of difference and universal dignity?  Which is a better-rounded, more thoughtful individual prepared to make his own fate freely?  Which is a more responsible citizen or, more accurately, a fuller human being?

It is entirely possible that the odd student here or there could piece together a coherent, unified experience out of a postsecondary education that lacks a core curriculum.  Such instances would be flukes, left entirely to the vicissitudes of chance.  The norm, however, would be generic graduates with a surface-level sampling of various disciplines or hyper-focused specialists that never venture out of their chosen comfort zones.

In point of fact, the common core is already quite minimal. A couple classes in the sciences, a couple more in the fine arts, two more in non-English language, and a declared major and minor – it’s a token core, really, and there is considerable freedom of movement in there (and who learns a language in six credits anyway?). The six English credits are just about the only thing we can count on every student sharing in common. In this erstwhile student’s opinion, it’s not much, but at least it’s something.  If nothing else, it affirms the idea, no matter how faintly, that there is a certain minimum standard, applying to everyone regardless of specialization, that must be satisfied in order to be considered an informed, free-thinking, responsible person.  I believe jettisoning the final remaining affirmation of that idea is a mistake.

There are more important considerations than attracting more students. I am speaking, of course, as a romantic and grateful graduate of the U of A’s BA program, an unapologetic apologist for liberal education.  I am not speaking as an administrator or business analyst.  I’m not in the position of having to make the university financially solvent.  But as one parting shot, it’s worth wondering whether being competitive because of a lack of standards or requirements is something we should want to be competitive for.  Being known as a rare provider of a novel, radical kind of education that unites students with the shared experience of inquiring into the human condition as such – ultimately the shared purview of the natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, and humanities alike – would set a school quite apart, a university among multiversities.  There are few places curious students can find that nowadays.  There is opportunity for reform, but I fear it’s in the opposite direction of what’s currently on the table.

It seems that in trying to address the Bachelor of Arts overhaul, I’ve broadened the matter to wholesale reform of how universities function. This seems an impossibly large and fanciful undertaking, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that it’s probably not feasible any time soon.  But, by thinking long and hard about what it is we’re forsaking in getting rid of the common core in our U of A’s BA program, perhaps we can mitigate, if not undo, some of the educational and intellectual damage that will be done when we jettison the last fragment of the unifying, universal vision of higher education in that faculty.  Perhaps some future students can use that exercise to unify their education themselves.  For the time being, however, the best course of action would be to let the present core requirements stand.  Any future changes should, if anything, build on that core.

Banner photo courtesy of Neil Volk.

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