Liberalizing the university curriculum offers something new but usually at the cost of wisdom

Robert PriceIs education liberal or conservative?

I’m not talking about party politics. I mean something much more fundamental: Is the work of teachers inherently geared towards replicating scholastic and cultural traditions, or does school exist to prepare students for – and even usher in – social and cultural change?

Does school make history or just teach it?

According to Steven Murphy, president and vice-chancellor of University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, the days of preserving cultural tradition are well since passed.

Today, universities and colleges need to “disrupt or be disrupted.”

Be the change, in other words.

In an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail, Murphy argues that the proliferation of new technologies necessitates radical changes in teaching methods. He advises schools to partner more with businesses “to prepare grads for the jobs of the future” and argues for more “technologically-enhanced experiential learning, where students can develop skills and experiences through work placement or co-op opportunities.”

Murphy’s attitude is shared by administrators at many colleges and universities. Facing threats to their existence – specifically, the loss of students and tuition dollars to non-traditional educational outfits – these administrators choose to transform their institutions into places of constant change.

Or to use the lingo, places of “disruption.”

This bias towards change has rewritten higher education, as anybody remotely connected with the university already knows. Some academics want to fool themselves into believing that undergraduate universities remain places of higher learning. Reality says otherwise. Today, undergraduate programs are places where students chase higher salaries, not the higher things in life.

You can hardly blame the students. Saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, the average student needs a career – or at least a paying job – to salve the financial bruising of their education.

And as much as we might want to say schools have no choice in the matter, we can – and should – place responsibility on faculty and university administrators for ceding ground on too many principles far too often. Educational leaders are the ones redefining higher education as job-training on the presumption that this will save higher education.

Hopefully they’re right. Because if they’re wrong, we all lose.

What we lose is hard to quantify, but you can see it in degree-holding graduates who do not read and who are ambivalent, if uninterested, in art, religion, philosophy and history. For every classroom hour dedicated to experimental classroom technologies, experiential learning or co-op placements, students spend one fewer hour learning history, arts and literature of the culture in which they find themselves.

As for ethical, moral and character formation, forget it. That’s strictly passé.

Schools used to offer sanctuary for students looking to answer the big questions by studying the great works that offer answers. But no more. Higher learning today is relegated to higher degrees. If you really want to study life, get a master’s degree. Better yet, study at a seminary, where such questions are still given priority.

In their defence, administrators like Murphy who want to “disrupt” education are right about the world. It is changing rapidly. But history teaches that the world has always been changing, and it always will tumble through revolutions and upheavals. Should a university’s curricula change to account for every potential threat to a salaried livelihood? Must teachers adopt every educational fad that comes along? What, if anything, should remain constant in an undergraduate education?

Liberalizing the curriculum offers something new but usually at the cost of displacing old knowledge, otherwise called wisdom, our inherited and invaluable wealth that resides at a higher realm than credentialing and job training. It’s what higher education is supposed to be about.

Universities and colleges can add experiential learning to the curricula, invest millions in the latest ed tech, and off-load teaching onto private companies whose interest is not in teaching. There’s a chance such activities will prepare students for the future. But they do nothing to teach students the wisdom of the past.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

liberalizing higher education

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