Home / 25th Anniversary of Arts One at UBC

25th Anniversary of Arts One at UBC

A prefatory comment from Professor Rowan….

Re-reading this 22 years later (2013) leaves me still confident of the relevance of its message.  I change nothing, though my uneasiness concerning the future of Arts One itself may have been too strong, since Arts One now continues, in its fashion, at UBC.  The university takes pride in the fact of the existence of Arts One, and of course mainly continues on its own path as a research institution.

The crisis in undergraduate education remains, sadly, much as I described it in this celebratory talk.


            We’re here today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Arts One, a program created to offer a measure of liberal education to first year students.  Arts One merits celebration because virtually everything in North American university education runs against it or anything like it.  The problems facing liberal education, and which have faced Arts One from its beginning, arise both outside and inside such programs.  I want to speak briefly about both sets of problems today, and will begin with the more general problems that arise outside, in the larger university community.

It has for a very long time been acknowledged by a number of intelligent friends of higher education that undergraduate education in North America, most inexcusably in the first two years, the lower division, is a failure.  This heavy criticism is voiced by friends of the enterprise, not by hostile critics or Philistines.  Responsibility for the failure lies with the dominating, prestigious, research-driven universities, and within those institutions the responsibility can only be traced to the overwhelming majority of faculty whose minds and hearts are devoted to research, to graduate students and post-bachelor degree training.  But that sentence merely indicates the site of the problem.  The problem itself is that by and large professors don’t recognize that the undergraduate education for which they are responsible is a failure.  Now there may be uneasiness, some ambivalence or even residual guilt on this matter within the professoriate: at least I suspect there is.  Nonetheless, as judged by practice one would have to conclude that professors think undergraduate education should consist almost entirely of the initial or preparatory stages of training for an academic or research profession; as though undergraduate students were going to follow the paths of their teachers – even though it is obvious that most have not and will not do so.

Now we should be altogether clear that we’re not talking here about Caltech or MIT.  Therefore the fact that only a tiny, tiny fraction of undergraduate students are or should be headed in that direction in any given academic generation should make a fundamental difference to the educational programs offered.  But it doesn’t.  The now standard undergraduate offerings just labor on.

Why is that?  Why should professors have adopted such an ill-suited set of attitudes towards undergraduate education?  Ill-suited it is, but odd it is not, because that’s just what the professors themselves know or recognize since they are the products of that system.  They are the ones who didn’t stop along the way, for whose careers, apparently, the undergraduate curriculum was well-suited.  In their eyes it represents things as they should be for it reflects their training and recruitment, it stands behind their competence and confidence, and is the focus of their academic values, interests, ambitions, rewards and prestige.  That is to say, it represents virtually everything solid and good that they see attached to faculty research careers.  That is why, to put the matter another way, the research-graduate school tail now wags the educational dog.  So the resulting lack of respect for and intelligent care of the undergraduate level should only have been expected, and that’s a pity.  But even more’s the pity since given that condition it’s not at all clear that a better undergraduate curriculum can be generated by or be taught by most of the faculty who now dominate the academy.  I mean to say that even if by some miracle professors could acknowledge the failure at the undergraduate level, it’s not all sure that many of them are capable of doing better in any direction other than the direction they know and to which they are contentedly wedded.  Even if the spirit were willing the flesh may be too weak.  They themselves, in other words, may not be suited to the task.  Their academic disposition and competence simply may not be sufficiently versatile.

Perhaps I too much lack confidence in my former profession.  Perhaps I’m unduly skeptical of the range of its competence.  Perhaps the professoriate could in fact do better by undergraduate education.  Perhaps.  But there is no “perhaps” about this, that it is certain that better can be done only if wide recognition grows that things as they are are a failure and that more of the same will aggravate the condition rather than ease it.

Don’t take my word for it.  The failure is widely and authoritatively acknowledged and has been so for many years.  Early in the century Alexander Meiklejohn indicted it.  Clark Kerr, the former President of the University of California in 1984 baldly described undergraduate general education as a “disaster area”.  Kerr was not the first or only one to argue that a coherent liberal education has not been available for a long time and is not now except by accident in any but a few programs across the continent.  The Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education, headed by Stuart Smith, argued at length in 1991 that nothing less than radical change was necessary.  Ernest Boyer, now President of the Carnegie Foundation, has for years been proclaiming the same judgment.  The recently appointed President of Stanford University, Gerhard Casper, conceded the essential truth of at least a milder version of that indictment.  (Stanford, remember, is regularly rated among the dozen most high-powered and prestigious universities in North America.)  As reported in The Los Angeles Times he suggested that his first task would be to help improve undergraduate education.  Since minor deficiencies are not usually cited by intelligent people upon taking office as “first tasks”, it is safe to assume that he sees undergraduate education as the most serious of Stanford’s educational problems.  Ironically, one might also assume he could have, and maybe would have said the same thing had he been appointed president of almost any other prestigious university of North America.  The presidential agenda could be the same for all, or most all, and that is part of my point.  In a masterpiece of diplomatic understatement President Casper went on to say that the first task, improving undergraduate education, would be a difficult job given the research emphasis of so many professors.  It would be a mistake to conclude from that remark that the feature of “research emphasis” that causes the difficulty centers around time and the shortage thereof.  Time is always short for serious productive people.  But time and its use is itself a function of the priorities assigned to various activities by individuals, including professors.  Thus the priorities assigned by the professoriate of North American universities is much more revealing of the nature of the problems of undergraduate education than is the matter of the constant shortage of time, per se.

Now other studies by eminent, knowledgeable figures could be cited to the same effect.  And to all these we should add the half-articulated dissatisfaction of those who have recognized the deep, persistent failure of undergraduate education as it is offered mostly everywhere in North America.  I refer here to students and ex-students, many of whom in my own (and in my colleagues’) experience express a nagging intuition that somehow it didn’t turn out quite right.  Something didn’t happen that would have made a difference.  They report a sense of disappointment, necessarily vague because they have trouble identifying whatever it is that might have made a difference.  But they are not pointing to a deficiency in their wage-earning capacities – not at all.  The sensed deficiency in their university education has to do, rather, with its utter failure to provide any sense of the whole.  Undergraduate years consist almost entirely of narrow, segmented, disconnected pieces or bits, lacking depth, range and perspective.  Thus these years utterly fail to illuminate even so central a question as who we are and what we’re doing.  That kind of illumination is just what programs of a liberal sort set out to provide.  They can provide it well if given the chance.  And there really has to be some corner of the university which sets about doing that, because if not then and not there, then where and when?  Lacking perspective and coherence, the knowledge students have gained through their undergraduate years tends to leave them empty though half-full, half-knowing yet ignorant, somewhat bemused, skeptical and disappointed.

But acknowledging the failure of undergraduate education, even by insiders, makes little or no difference.  Nothing really changes; if anything conditions are worse on the whole than they were 25 or 40 years ago.  The features collected together to constitute this indictment will be variously emphasized by various critics, but somewhere the following features are likely to be prominent:

  1.  The lower division suffers from an absolute absence of center and integrity.  Among other deficiencies, that leaves it subject to steady invasion by the disciplines – always eager to extend their list of pre-requisites.  Even a better, wiser system of advising would make no difference, for where could wiser advisors advise searching students to go?
  2. The use of teaching assistants in lower division classes for anything other than the most routine and non-sensitive of tasks is impossible to defend.  Of course, there are areas where their use is quite in order, for example as lab assistants or in marking exams which rely exclusively on true/false or multiple choice questions.  Surprisingly, another place where in fact TA’s might serve education better is not in the lower division at all, but rather with Honors and serious major students.  I won’t go into the many reasons for that now.
  3. It is argued that the upper division, relying on a heavy major in a discipline, provides the coherent educational center missing in the lower division.  It is argued, moreover, that the intensive specialization that a heavy major requires provides just about the right kind of training for the mind that undergraduate education should offer.  There would be merit in that argument if students had received or were to receive a healthy part of a general or liberal education somewhere along the line.  But since that is emphatically not the case the argument for the heavy 3rd and 4th year major is not very strong.  The total educational benefits are not as substantial as supposed because of the consistently narrow research interests of faculty, which increasingly characterize upper division course offerings.  More generous breadth requirements accomplish less than they might because fewer upper division courses are of interest to intelligent students from other disciplines, or are too recondite and technical.
  4. As attested by many professors and despite the heavy major, graduating B.A.’s and B.Sc.’s are not very well-schooled.  They are apt to know some aspects of the discipline well, but many would be unable to pass a broadly conceived comprehensive exam in “their” discipline.  I mean a comprehensive exam of the sort given to M.A. and Ph.D. candidates, scaled down to an appropriate level of depth and range.  Moreover, and as I said earlier, the overwhelming majority of graduating B.A.’s and B.Sc.’s are not headed for graduate schools or lives devoted to research; nor – note this – are they even likely to end up in careers for which their undergraduate education has provided direct or specific training.  What we have, therefore, is something of the worst of both worlds:  neither a good general education nor training for a career in a field where there are jobs to be had.
  5. As is everywhere agreed, a far too large contingent of graduating students simply cannot read with comprehension or write clearly and grammatically.  For them, at any rate, university education has failed.  It has failed as well for the public which has authorized and subsidized that education.  That might be the same public that would expect its universities to turn out graduates who are truly literate, broadly informed, with disciplined, enriched minds, and an understanding of civic life, thereby to enhance the quality of the public mind in a democratic society.
  6. Far too many graduating students, probably most, have never in a serious and sustained way wrestled with even one great and abiding human theme or concern at an appropriate philosophical level.
  7. Far too many B.A.’s and B.Sc.’s are abysmally ignorant of history.  Among that number is an disturbingly large contingent proud of its ignorance, and some who, like Henry Ford, sneer at the subject.  This ignorance is not confined to dates, battles, generals, treaties and statesmen.  The kind of ignorance at issue is much more significant than that:  it is ignorance and therefore a near complete lack of appreciation of the nature and role of the central moral, intellectual, political, legal, and social institutions of their culture.  Intelligent criticism and true independence of mind cannot be the product of an oblivious or a studied lack of understanding of how the culture came to be – its achievements, weaknesses and failures.  And let us not confuse intelligent criticism with a kind of street-wise skepticism or cynicism.

So there it is, an indictment of undergraduate education in North America as set forth by its friends, knowledgeable insiders.  The indictment is old, widely acknowledged as basically accurate, and of undeniable significance.  Yet little or no improvement is visible.  Pretty clearly no fundamental change for the better will take place in the character of undergraduate education unless and until the research-dominated orientation of institutions of higher learning loosens its strangling grip on the university.  Nothing will change, really, until that orientation itself no longer decisively directs and rewards the moral and intellectual energies of the institution.  Studies will proliferate, trenchant criticisms will continue to be heard, feeble gestures and much waving of hands will be seen, but unless a different and more appropriate set of standards to guide undergraduate education is somehow adopted, nothing will change.  Yet if that research-orientation must be severely qualified over a long period of time then we face a task so immense as to make it most unlikely to be accomplished, because what has come to be – excessive and self-important though it is – is of course the result of no accident.  It has credentials.

The “bad guys” did not one dark night overwhelm the “good     guys” and then manage somehow to extend and make   permanent their deeply flawed rule.  As to be expected in           any large human enterprise, there are vices and virtues in       this story, but the key to it is, as I indicated earlier, more     complicated and challenging than that.

I just now said that the dominating research orientation of higher education was “…excessive and self-important…” and I want to distinguish those traits from what would be the appropriate and important role that that orientation should play.  The pursuit of knowledge, research, is one of the great human vocations, and its achievements are among the glories of the human mind.  If it’s not the brightest star in that constellation there are few brighter ones.  The pursuit of knowledge, thus, is a truly important thing.  But in its modern university mode it has become self-important and domineering, and that’s a different thing.  In its self-importance it relegates other vital concerns not merely to second or third place, but in practice relegates them almost off the scale. . . case in point:  the heedless treatment accorded undergraduate education, especially the lower division, in our universities.

Anyway, because of time I can’t sketch even a short version of the whole tale today, though aspects of it will be implicit in things I have said and will say.  I can take time to note, however, that the research orientation, sustained over generations, has severe negative consequences for liberal education not just in its heedless indifference or outright opposition, which are potent enough.  It produces other equally potent consequences because it makes faculty recruitment and retention for even modest programs or courses of that type so difficult in the long run as likely to be fatal.

Arts One has suffered from that problem through most of its career.  It simply has difficulty recruiting and retaining regular members of faculty to teach in it for one or two years.  It has had to recruit many instructors from other quarters.  In some cases that has lowered its quality, in some cases not.  But it has kept the program marginal in the Faculty of Arts, and more importantly, it keeps it marginal in the interest and respect it generates in the university at large.  It has survived, as a consequence, mainly through the extraordinary devotion of a relative handful of regular faculty and by the skin of the Dean’s teeth.

The situation facing Arts One in this regard is not unique.  Meiklejohn’s Experimental Program at the University of Wisconsin in the 20’s and 30’s foundered on the faculty problem.  Tussman’s program at Berkeley in the 60’s ended, unable to solve it.

The undergraduate portion of Columbia University, Columbia College, has for many years offered a prescribed liberal, great bookish curriculum.  This program is compulsory for all students, with some electives to round out the schedule.  The curriculum changes very little if at all over the years.  Columbia is able to staff this program simply by assigning post-doctoral fellows to it, and by bringing significant moral pressure on regular junior and senior faculty to teach in it.  In short, Columbia insures that the program is staffed, because the university is committed to it.  Where programs rest on volunteers it’s hard to point to successful long-standing programs of liberal education in the research-oriented universities.

Why is that?  The short answer, and that’s all I can give today, the short answer is that the training and recruitment of university faculty members relies essentially on research.  Thus the bona fide intellectual interests of these scholars focus on research.  That tends steadily to override, to displace such appetite as there might be for teaching in a program of liberal education, even one so inherently satisfying as Arts One can be.  Satisfying it is, but very demanding it is as well.  I have found it much easier to teach regular courses than to teach in Arts One, and I’ve done a lot of both.  In addition, promotion, rewards, status, mobility and prestige all follow the path of research productivity almost without exception, despite verbal protestations to the contrary.

So thus it is and thus I’m afraid it will continue to be on the faculty recruitment front for programs or even courses of a liberal type.  The whole tide is set strongly against them.  It isn’t that those who are indifferent or hostile to liberal education are somehow bad guys – not at all, it’s that they’re doing what they were trained to do, recruited to do, rewarded for doing, and are themselves devoted to doing.  No puzzle there.  The puzzle, rather, is why as many of us as there are still continue to believe that there must be some corner for liberal education in the modern research-dominated university.  There’s a loving not wisely, but too well!

In order to talk about problems internal to Arts One I must begin at the beginning, way back when – when even a Dean might be a bit of a Young Turk.  The then Dean of Arts, Dennis Healey, put together a committee to consider undergraduate education in the Faculty.  That wasn’t done idly.  There was concern and there had been an earlier inquiry.

He and most members of his committee were subject to the dissatisfactions sketched earlier.  And it is from that committee that Arts One emerged directly.  Arts One would not have happened had Healey not led the inquiry and given the program his full support.  Professor Joseph Tussman of the University of California played a central role.  Tussman’s Experimental Collegiate Program was underway in Berkeley at that time.  He visited Healey’s committee and two members of the Faulty of Arts later taught in Tussman’s program.  Through them, and Tussman himself, much of the conception and structure of Arts One came to be.  Directly behind Tussman stood Alex Meiklejohn, to whom I’ve already referred.  His Experimental Program at the University of Wisconsin in the late 20’s, early 30’s, and his eloquent writing on the value of liberal education constituted the modern seed from which this and some other programs have grown.  And of course, credit must be given to those who carried the fight to gain approval of Arts One within the Faculty of Arts, and to those members of the Faculty without whose generous  (if fingers-crossed) support, such a program of liberal education would not have been a living option.  As expected, there was serious and strong opposition; much but not all from senior faculty members.  On that occasion, however, the opposition wasn’t strong enough.  Arts One was approved.

When stripped to essentials approval was given to a three-item package.

  1. Arts One would be allowed to claim 3/5 of a first-year student’s time, a 9-unit bundle;
  2. Successful completion of Arts One would be deemed to satisfy the first-year English 100 requirement.  Without that the program would have died at birth;
  3. Regular members of faculty would be seconded by departments for one or usually two-year stints, as individual professors volunteered to teach in the program.

Those were the formal grants or permissions without which Arts One could not have become the program envisaged.  But there was also a crucial set of informal understandings without which, in my opinion, the program would not then have received approval, and lacking which would not be approved today.

  1. Students were to be graded, and though there were some doubts at the beginning it came to be recognized that the standard should be at least as rigorous as commonly the case in first year;
  2. Heavy sustained attention was to be paid to reading with comprehension and writing with clarity, drawing on both imaginative and analytic/argued types of literature;
  3. Though the curriculum was not, for good reason, laid out in detail, it was understood that it would rely heavily on classic or great books, chosen for their capacity to illuminate a theme or period of perennial significance;
  4. The program would be organized in independent, more or less self-contained clusters, of roughly 100 students per cluster, with no less than 5, preferably 6 faculty each;
  5. Each cluster would offer its specific version of the curriculum described above, as formulated by its faculty who would undertake to teach that curriculum collegially.  Faculty were to be drawn from a wide variety of disciplines, but it was believed that history, literature, and philosophy were central and would consistently be well-represented;
  6. The enterprise was to be conducted in a campus “home,” if such could be found, through a variety of lectures, seminars, tutorials, projects, etc., thereby placing unusually heavy demands on sustained faculty participation, face-to-face;
  7. The program was to be open to all first-year students who volunteered.  An Honors program would likely have been easier to gain approval for, easier to recruit faculty for, and easier to conduct, but would have been of less significance.

So far, so good.  But there is a deep vulnerability built into Arts One.  Its faculty is not permanent, and that shifting faculty prepares the curriculum each year.  In addition, the program has always functioned without a leader who possessed real authority to guide it and who remained in office for more than a short time.  Thus the curriculum is especially vulnerable to being overtaken by what I’ll describe as current pre-occupations, issues, enthusiasms and events.  That, in fact, is the major internal problem facing a program organized as Arts One is.  The temptation is strong, indeed it is very strong, to allow its curricular commitment to liberal education of a classic sort to be supplanted by candidate themes drawn from the endless lists of topical injustices, rivalries, ideologies and urgencies.  Any of these might be worthy of our attention sometime.  Space should be and often is made for them somewhere in the university.  But to build the curriculum around them for a  program of the sort Arts One is supposed to be, is to bring a kind of living death to it.

Since liberal education is truly on the endangered species list, Arts One has the rare-to-point-of-extinction opportunity to take students away from the drowning pool for a little while, away from the clamorous urgencies, to provide time, place, direction, comrades and encouragement to study and reflect at another level.  It has a precious opportunity to try to disengage students briefly from their natural tendency to think that the world and its problems began with them, to try to take them away from the contemporary frontier, to try to show them that our race has always been wrestling with troubles, public and private, and that these don’t change much over time; the game is the same, only the players change.  A program like Arts One offers us all, students and faculty alike, a brief occasion to try to transcend our urgent passions and narrow prejudices, thereby to raise concern and understanding to a “higher plane of regard”, to borrow a phrase from Robert Frost.  If it doesn’t adhere pretty faithfully to that conception of its role then its friends will steadily turn away in disappointment, and its students will have been cheated of what is for most of them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Its enemies and critics, of course, will be confirmed in their permanent suspicion that liberal education is an idea inherently too weak, too vague to guide education, and that, at its best! the program soon is doing poorly what, under other auspices, might be done well.

Let us not make the mistake of confusing the medium for the message when we think of Arts One.  That is tempting because, or so one might reason, there is the medium, the unusual structure (its break with the course system, its claim on so large a chunk of student time, the cluster organization, collegial teaching, etc).  That’s the part that’s easy to see the value of.  And then there’s what some see as the separable message, the liberal curriculum.  That’s the hard part, to some the boring part, the value of which is said to be dubious.

But the medium is not the message, especially not here.  The message should be roughly constant, it resides in a classic curriculum and is of first importance.  The medium, the structure, however versatile it might prove to be for other curricular projects, is for Arts One still only a well-devised vehicle to convey that message.

What then can overcome the suspicions steadily harbored in the critics of liberal education?  What can keep such a program on track and prevent it from squandering its hard-won opportunity by drifting in directions it was not intended to go?  The answer is to cling to classic themes and texts themselves.  Great books, and by the way, some of them are contemporary, can carry the weight of the program in a way nothing else can.  They have the substance, the timeless significance, the magisterial quality that continues to offer the right kind of challenges for the mind in a program of liberal education.  They address the right kinds of problems at the right level, and if we stick with them and are not led off down all manner of fascinating byways, then the program can be trusted and its students will be uniquely rewarded.  Its faculty will also be rewarded and enriched and even be rejuvenated, and that is not merely incidental.

Plainly what I’ve just been saying is cautionary, but it can’t be dismissed as merely one man’s cranky opinion.  There were other implicit understandings and explicit policies accepted from the start that support what I’ve been saying.  I shall mention two of them.

One is that the departments of philosophy and history waived most prerequisites for Arts One students.  Those were acts of academic generosity, liberal in spirit, but they stemmed from an understanding that the philosophical and historical aspects of the curriculum would not be minor.  Arts One has not always maintained its side of that bargain.

The second is that Arts One as conceived reflected a commitment to emphasize the little-recognized perspective of an agent or actor, fulfilling a public function or playing a responsible part in some larger cultural enterprise.  When that perspective is brought forward the much more common perspective of observer, critic, or scientist receives less emphasis.  In the modern university, with its scientific-research preoccupation,  there is little attention paid to that other primary mode of human life in which we are agents, deliberating actors, not predicting observers.  In that mode we are especially not engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, trying to predict our own actions!  We are, rather, trying to decide between possible courses of action as wisely as we can.  Great texts consistently bring that agent perspective into bright and troubling light, in a way other texts do not. tThat’s one aspect of their greatness.  As an aside, or maybe not as an aside, think for a moment of Plato’s dialogue CRITO, in which Socrates in prison deliberates on the chance to escape the sentence of the Athenian court.  Where in any literature has the issue been posed in a brighter or more troubling light?  Light from such sources powerfully illuminates the responsibilities and rights of citizenship in a self-governing, democratic society.  On that topic, lamentably, education in North America, again, fails to a degree that is nearly criminal.  Thus, with regard to Arts One, failure to provide this emphasis on the perspective of the agent would be a very serious loss indeed.

I have a short list of what I like to think of as helpful suggestions.  And without more ado here they are, presented in the spirit of helping.

For Arts One:  create a proper office of Head.  Give that office its appropriate budget of hard money to be used in precisely the fashion other departments have always done.  And equally important, give it authority truly to guide the program.  Without the authority the office won’t be able to preserve the integrity of the curriculum.  And without the money it won’t be able to seek out, hire and retain the type of faculty the program requires.  Some of that faculty will no doubt be temporary, but some had better be regular and permanent.  If those things are not done then I fear that the next celebration for Arts One, say the 30th, will be honoring the ghost rather than the real thing.  The ghost may well be more famous than the real thing ever was since fame often follows death.  If that happens it wouldn’t be the first time a worthy institution has been undone and comes to enjoy a posthumous, yet still an ignominious fame.

With regard to the lower division, the problem as I see it is somehow to create something in the direction of a kind of college out of those two years.  The vagueness there is altogether intentional, and even to achieve that isn’t easy because as things stand such an entity would rely for its conception, curriculum and faculty on the departments and professors that now occupy the academic space.  For what have been taken to be good and sufficient reasons universities strongly and successfully resist creating curricular and instructional categories in their Arts and Science heartland that rely on or require different sets of faculty members.  It is generally, though not without exception, the case that the faculty in Arts and in Science is basically the same from the first year through the last doctoral year…the same and all alike!  Trained in the same way, recruited in like manner, same set of interests, same set of academic standards and goals.  But to nurse into being even “a kind of college” for a lower division devoted to liberal education would certainly require gathering a set of instructors, only a few of whom can be found in the present faculty ranks.  At least a fair number of key professors would have to be recruited for which the usual university recruitment standards could not be used.

Thus what has heretofore been taken to be good and sufficient reasons are now at any rate, neither good nor sufficient.  That is to say, it is unlikely almost to the point of certainty that lower division education can be made coherent and liberal unless a kind of college is created with at least a key cadre of professors guiding it, enjoying tenure, promotions and other rewards outside the normal university standards and channels.

Even a kind of college needs a Dean and a budget appropriate to the difficulty and seriousness attending the responsibility.  It does not mean trying to create an Arts I and II out of the whole of the first two years.  However, it does mean that such a tentative entity must be free to set its own curriculum, to create various cores and streams, to commission and underwrite courses, to recruit faculty and so forth.

Does that sound radical?  It shouldn’t.  The powers and organization sketched are just the kinds of powers necessary to achieve the purpose, and in fact are very much like the powers various faculties, colleges and schools have long enjoyed in order to achieve their purposes.  The only thing radical in this suggestion is that it take place within a modern “multiversity” and be dedicated to liberal education.  On second thought I guess that’s radical enough, because I’ll bet that if something along these lines is not undertaken then virtually nothing will happen.

If nothing large is done about the lower division, nothing like a kind of college is created there, then liberal education has lost its best opportunity.  But something of value might still be worth the effort, namely to introduce some changes in the lower and upper divisions.  However, this road to curricular change is rough, for it requires more than mere benign neglect or indifference on the part of faculty.  Professors must approve because they corporately enjoy constitutional authority concerning curriculum.  Yet, as I said at the beginning, that is the body responsible for creating, maintaining and intensifying the very condition from which some of us think we should try to extricate ourselves.

Don’t take my word for it.  Listen to Clark Kerr again, speaking now in 1991.  He puts the matter in even more stark and pessimistic terms, for he says the professoriate is “… not now positioned to think creatively and responsibly about what a comprehensive and coherent college education ought to be.”  What that means is that significant programmatic changes in the undergraduate curriculum are so unlikely as even to warrant a whispered prayer.  In addition, if curricular questions other than straight disciplinary ones are opened, then latent factions, schisms and ideological loyalties are likely to spring to life and to overwhelm discussion and action, as in the unseemly, bitter, unedifying brawls at Stanford a few years ago; or to result in a set of such feeble curricular compromises as to be of little or no value.  Consider Harvard’s hard-won core curriculum, sometimes called “the hollow core.”

When this set of considerations is brought together with those I presented at the beginning, one then has to conclude that no frontal approach to the academic establishment on fundamental curricular changes in undergraduate education has much, if any, chance of success.  As I said before, the tide is strongly set and the research and disciplinary interests are powerfully entrenched.

But perhaps, I say perhaps, some glancing or tangential proposals of a more modest sort might be adopted, after persuasive efforts have long been pursued.  These steps might serve to mitigate in very small measure the illiberal and incoherent character of undergraduate education.

For example, is it possible that persuasion could sometime bring the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Science to reduce the major to nine units, as I believe was once commonly the case in North America?  And/or to restore a general curriculum degree in Arts, and a general science degree in Science (which may already be done at U.B.C.)?

I’m by no means sure of the wisdom of these recommendations and they carry risks.  The chief risk is that students graduate not well-schooled in two or more rather than in only one discipline, without compensating gains.  In themselves, plainly, these steps guarantee neither coherence nor liberality.  They are tangential and at best might provide opportunity and encouragement to move in directions that are healthier.

For one thing, these steps would guarantee that a lot of third and fourth year students would be looking for courses to round out their schedules.  Now it is taken as gospel these days that the market mechanism can solve all problems if only given a chance.  If student demand constitutes a market then departments might move to serve their own interest by satisfying those demands.  They might encourage their faculty to offer upper division courses of general, not merely of narrow disciplinary interest.  What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that if the size of the audience held captive by the major is reduced, then over time significant, broadening changes might appear as a sort of by-product.  I concede that isn’t much, but it would be something.  If nothing else it might open the gates a trifle and who knows what that might lead to?

One final helpful suggestion.

Is it possible that the present university professoriate could be enticed out of its disciplinary cocoons if the fourth year was explicitly devoted to general education, to a liberal curriculum?  I don’t know the answer to that question.  I don’t know whether professors in sufficient numbers, motivated by a heretofore latent interest in liberal education, would find a fourth year opportunity to participate attractive enough to overcome their present deep reluctance to do so.  If the answer is even marginally affirmative it might be worth a try.  It would require seriously pushing the major into the second year, thus making the first year an even more “academic shopping” year than it is now.  Then it would require devising and staffing whatever liberal curriculum was deemed appropriate for all students in the fourth year.

That plan reduces the window open to liberal education from two years to one.  But in truth, one real year devoted to liberal education would be a flat-out net gain since the present two-year lower division window is in effect never really open anyway.  Disciplines represented by departments might oppose the plan because as things stand pre-requisite and “strongly encouraged” courses in first and second year give many disciplines something close to a three-year major anyway.  Other considerations, pro and con, can be raised, but I won’t pursue the idea further now.

I wish a poll could be taken of all professors in North American universities.  I have some questions for that poll.  The direction of the answers to these questions might or might not be very revealing.  Here are my questions:

  1. Do you concede that liberal education is not generally available in North American universities?
  2. If you do concede that, does it occasion regret or guilt?
  3. Would you encourage your own children to get a significant piece of liberal education if they can?
  4. Would you sacrifice much or little to send them to places where chances of liberal education are better?
  5. Looking back would you have chosen a more liberal education for yourself if it had been available?
  6. If you received some fair measure of liberal education, do you now regret it or view it as not having been worthwhile?  How do you rate it?
  7. Do you have serious reservations about teaching assistants playing anything other than a most minor role in the education of your own children?

If the answers to my questions run in the direction I hope they’d run, then one must ask simply what has gone wrong and stays wrong when the whole university undergraduate education in North America is the responsibility of and is entirely in the hands of those who were polled?  If the answers to my questions do not run in the direction I hope they’d run, then more power to Arts One!  And to Arts One many happy returns!  It’s a kind of miracle it happened at all, and to have survived for twenty-five years is, given what universities are, a major miracle indeed, and it is one well worth celebrating.

 Return to all Bob Rowan’s writings