The Globe and Mail’s ongoing series “Our time to lead” explores the current state of the Canadian higher education system. The series investigates various approaches to education, both in Canada and abroad. In its examination of education in our modern society, a clear contrast emerges between the ideal and the real, the theoretical and the practical. The implicit argument is that Canadian universities don’t provide a balanced education to students.
The dismal statistics of youth unemployment in Canada point to a gap between education and ability to get hired and keep a job. Upon graduation, students may be shocked to discover that our thorough analysis of Rousseau’s Social Contract has not prepared us to deal with the contingencies of a real life employment contract. We come to recognize the conflict played out in educational institutions, between learning for its own sake and practical learning for the workforce.
As a King’s student, I appreciate the value of a liberal arts degree. I can attest to the benefits of the study of ancient philosophy, religion and literature in the development of an inquisitive and critical mind. In my experience, knowledge of history and political theory are relevant to understanding the patterns and politics of contemporary life.
But liberal arts degrees need to push further. In addition to the current course of study, it would be beneficial to incorporate a practical aspect to the degree. The ideal degree would endow university graduates with abstract knowledge of disciplines as well as constructive skills to be used on the job.
Erin Wunker, a professor of English and Canadian studies at Dalhousie, has an innovative approach to the liberal arts dilemma. She is collaborating with international development studies professor John Cameron to create an experiential class called “Halifax and the World.” The new class will provide students with a concrete understanding of the city in which they live. Through her interactive approach, students will study text and then bring it to bear on the world around them in an exploratory way. The class will emphasize the immediate applicability and value of the concepts learned in the classroom to everyday life. Wunker’s approach could be adopted by many different disciplines at Dal and adapted to suit each course of study.
In another opportunity to improve the efficacy of the liberal arts degree, we can look to the bachelor of commerce program at Dal. Dal’s school of business includes a mandatory co-op program: for three semesters, students participate in an internship that enables them to utilize their knowledge in a practical way.
Though business knowledge may appear to transfer easily from the classroom to the boardroom, liberal arts students could also benefit from the inclusion of internship experience in a workplace of their interest. Arts students could intern at law firms, PR firms, newspapers or magazines, NGOs and other places suited to their professional aspirations. The practical experience could empower students to actively apply their studies in an employment setting.
While the current liberal arts degree has merit on its own terms, the realities of our economy prove the need to innovate our approach to education to include a more practical component. If Dal is going to adapt to our rapidly changing world, the institution should consider making changes to incorporate these practical suggestions into the liberal arts degree.