Students at universities are turning away from arts and humanities programs as education becomes more aligned with corporate priorities. Register file photo

Preserving liberal arts in a tech crazy world

  • February 21, 2015
Editor's note: This is a video interview found in the Digital Edition of the weekly Catholic Register. To preview the Digital Edition, please visit: for your free one-week trial. Audio by Michael Swan | Photo courtesy of King's | Editing by Michael Chen

Prof. David Seljak has been standing up in front of classrooms and teaching young men and women how to think about their society for approximately a generation. There’s always been an ebb and flow of students, but lately the ebb has the upper hand.

“Courses I taught that used to have 200 students, now have 80. The number of arts majors at the University of Waterloo has plummeted since 2008,” the sociology professor told The Catholic Register.

Seljak reports that the University of Waterloo Faculty of Arts missed its enrolment target by 17 per cent last year.

“The students  in my classroom feel under pressure. They’re very concerned about getting a job,” said Seljak, who teaches at St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo.

The pressure is on students to enrol in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or business. And the pressure comes largely from parents.

“I think the big problem is parents,” said Peter Meehan, president and principal of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi Colleges on the University of British Columbia campus. “I talk to parents and they all want their kids to go to business school.”

While the disappearing arts and humanities majors are a problem for universities generally, it’s a particular challenge for Catholic colleges, whose traditional strengths are in philosophy, literature, modern languages and history.

“This is something that has been on the mind of anybody who has been teaching, not just in the Catholic colleges, but anybody in the liberal arts in general,” said Meehan. “It’s sort of like the challenge before the Church in general. The Church to many people has lost its sense of relevance or meaning, so we have to find creative ways to bring the values of our faith to the people in the same way that we have to do so for the liberal arts. What we know about the liberal arts is not necessarily being heard.”

What the Catholic colleges know is that the education they provide in all sorts of seemingly useless subjects — reciting Chaucer, arguing epistemology, reading St. Augustine — leads to more than jobs. They are fuel for careers.

“Call me naive if you will, but I honestly believe that we’re going to see a return to the humanities and liberal arts precisely because as education becomes more and more siloed or subject-specific or aligned with more corporate priorities actually, the need for the kind of education we’re providing becomes more essential,” said David Sylvester, president of King’s University College in London, Ont. “An integral humanism, call it Christian humanism, where you teach the person, where you try to bring things together, is exactly the antidote to the kind of thing that everybody is complaining about in higher education and education in general, that we’re just teaching little bits of things. You don’t have to be a Catholic educator to lament the corporatization of education and the reduction of education to the job market.”

Business, engineering and nursing programs have come to Catholic colleges across Canada asking for help. While these programs have been very good at imparting technical skills and specialized knowledge, they have had less success turning out adaptable, flexible, well-rounded graduates.

“At the end of the day people will seek out and pay for education that educates. It doesn’t just train up,” said Sylvester. “It goes back to the whole discussion about illiberal arts and liberal arts.”

Critical thinking, writing, cultural awareness and moral reasoning are not the kind of skills a person picks up on the job.

“Part of being educated in a place like King’s is you’re trained up to see the signs of the times, to read the signs of the times,” Sylvester said. “And I see a great future for the kind of education provided at Catholic universities precisely because they don’t fall into the trap of instrumental education, education for a single purpose.”

Sylvester has sold his Catholic philosophy of education to Brazilian health authorities who are worried that new doctors are graduating with all kinds of intricate skills and knowledge but few ways of relating to people and life. Some of the newer Brazilian medical schools at Catholic universities in Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte have entered into partnership with Western University and its medical school, but the Brazilian medical students are being sent to King’s, the Catholic college on the Western campus, for courses in philosophy and social sciences.

Canada’s Catholic colleges don’t have to go as far as Brazil to find partners looking for the broad, humanist approach to education.
“What we’re looking at more and more is reaching out to the professional schools,” said Fr. John Meehan, president of Campion College at the University of Regina. “A lot of them require, they have a breadth requirement.”

Business, nursing, engineering and other faculties turn to Campion for bundles of liberal arts and humanities courses that will stretch their students beyond technical skills.

“They’re seeing the value in it. My colleagues in engineering and nursing see the value in it,” said Meehan.

Campion is the only Jesuit liberal arts college in Canada — a stark contrast with the 28 Jesuit universities in the United States. But Meehan finds there’s a lot of Canadian interest in the history of Jesuit education stretching back to the 16th century, when Jesuit schools promoted a systematized overview of knowledge beginning with the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric before moving on to the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astrology. This basic Jesuit education — which often branched into dance, theatre, poetry and art — was preparation for further studies in philosophy and theology. From Rene Descartes to Pierre Trudeau to Arthur Conan Doyle and James Joyce, Jesuit schools have both the graduates and the history that attract people, said Meehan.

 “It helps to have a Jesuit Pope,” he said. “And this idea that we’re not a business. We’re not really here to make money. We’re here to form men and women for others. That has a social justice component that would be attractive to many. It’s a combination of academic excellence, social justice, forming people who are global citizens.”

Canadian universities in general have to rediscover teaching, said Peter Meehan in British Columbia.

“If you look at the University of Toronto mission from 1970, it was teaching. They were teaching institutions front and centre in their mission,” said Meehan. “And teaching just sort of fell back over the years and it became a research place.”

That’s a problem because institutions that are more interested in burnishing their international reputations and status through participation in large research projects are failing students, said Meehan.

“Parents need to hear that attrition is still an enormous concern at universities. Universities are not doing anything to address this,” he said. “First of all the average university student is taking closer to six years to finish a four-year degree. That’s a fact. Secondly, the number of what we call false starts is huge. Attrition rates are enormous. If you get them on the right start chances are they’re going to finish. We know also that when they have a false start many of them don’t go back. Then what’s their future about?”

The average graduate from university these days will probably go through seven or eight career changes in their lifetime. While their technical skills matter, being able to write and think clearly will matter more as they adapt to new environments and new jobs, said Sylvester.

Even if King’s isn’t crawling with philosophy majors, the college still has the opportunity to reach all kinds of students with a broader view of life.

“We’re at capacity. Students come to us. Even if they don’t know better, if they don’t know philosophy is a program they should be studying for a meaningful and productive life, we support them in the other disciplines they want to take. But then we inoculate them with a good liberal arts vaccine,” Sylvester said.

The idea that traditional university educations have lost their value is pure mythology, according to Herb O’Heron of the Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada. In 2014 the Canadian economy generated 792,000 new jobs, net. People with bachelors’ degrees took 595,000 of those jobs. In fact, people with university degrees of some kind captured more jobs than the economy generated at 865,300, making up for some of the 381,100 lost to high school dropouts.

“There’s a misperception out there that the liberal arts don’t prepare you for the working world and you should be in one of the STEM subjects, with the emphasis on job-ready skills,” said Fr. Meehan. “We forget things employers are looking for like critical thinking, the ability to write and think clearly, to express yourself in writing and orally.”

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