Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 12, 2007
Universities move from education to job training
Catholic colleges battle to maintain traditional focus on liberal arts
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"Universities are job-training facilities overwhelmingly."
Fr. Tim Scott,
"Many tertiary-level institutions are abandoning the goal of forming the whole person as part of their mission," Miller said Feb. 3 in a speech to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
"Learning skills and competencies for the marketplace are replacing the role of a general education curriculum, which has traditionally enshrined a humanistic thrust. Catholic higher education is everywhere suffering from this onslaught."
An undergraduate education should present the big picture to students, teach them how to think. But that's no longer happening, said Scott, who thinks higher education in general is highly fragmented.
"The drive for excellence at a university is a narrowing experience," he said. "To be excellent means to know some thing, some one thing very, very well.
"A brilliant student is someone who knows a great deal about one thing. When you have a system that rewards that kind of thinking you get this sort of fragmentation as a necessary result from it."
In this climate, "liberal education has kind of vanished" and as a result "people don't have a kind of a broad sense of the big issues in the culture anymore or a common philosophical means to discuss them."
Scott said Catholic higher learning institutions could meet the challenges posed by the commodification of education by "consistently stressing the value of a general liberal education."
"We must stress that there is a value in studying history - you know, history of ideas, history of the world, to see the value in literature, you know, to read, encourage students to read novels, to get a sense of the big questions as they have presented themselves historically."
He said subjects like English, philosophy and history should be studied "as a kind of precursor" to getting on to more technical issues.
There is a need for technicians and doctors and lawyers, Scott said. But to put students directly from high school on a career track is not a good thing. "The broadening of the mind needs to go on."
St. Joseph's College does what it can to expose undergraduate students to a liberal arts education and to inoculate them against the prevalent narrowness of thinking, Scott said.
As an affiliated college of the University of Alberta, St. Joe's teaches courses in applied ethics, philosophy, religious education and theology at the undergraduate level for credit in all degree programs with arts options.
It also offers courses in philosophy, science and religion, bioethics, social justice, Scripture, spirituality, contemporary worldviews, as well as sexuality and marriage. In total, 29 courses in Christian theology and nine courses in philosophy are listed for credit in the faculty of arts. Out of 35,000 students at the university, some 2,000 are enrolled at the college.
"Our college continues to value kind of the broad elements of a liberal education," Scott said. "That's what undergraduate arts is all about, giving people a sense of the core issues in history, in philosophy, in sciences and what are the main big questions that come to Western culture and how do we effectively learn to deal critically with those issues. That's very much going on in our classrooms."
Jesuit Father Benjamin Fiore, president of Campion College, a federated college at the University of Regina, said Catholic colleges can only do so much. "We are interested in preparing the whole person but I don't know if the person is interested in taking what we offer," he said.
"The Catholic colleges and universities can offer but what the students want is something else and I have to say that liberal arts is a very hard sell and that has been the mainstay of the Catholic educational effort on the university level.
"It's hard to convince people that there is a value in having a liberal arts degree. That's the problem."
Fiore said he knows certain Catholic universities that have business schools or medical schools insist on courses in ethics. "They offer ethics courses so as to see how Catholic values can be inserted there and the mind of the students can be formed to think in broader terms and not just on the practicalities of their career."
The University of Regina offers religious studies and philosophy as part of the menu of options that students may take, noted Fiore, who took over as Campion president 18 months ago.
"Students are interested in religious matters but their programs are set up in such a way that many of them, if they are in pre-professional programs, don't have the latitude to pursue those interests because of the other requirements they have to meet in order to get into the professions."
With foundations in Catholicism and the Jesuit tradition of education, Campion College enrolls 1,300 students of all faiths in arts, sciences and fine arts.
Recently the college launched a Catholic Studies program to expose students to the faith. "That's one way that we came up with to try to give the students the ability to get more immersed into a Catholic culture if they choose that," Fiore said.
"There are ways that the Catholic values can be inserted (into professional education)."
- Fr. Benjamin Fiore
The college also offers courses in social justice that have been well received. "Students do show a great interest in topics of social justice and not just in Canada but also on a global scale," the Jesuit noted.
"We have some very successful courses that we give in that area. And there is a small but growing interest in volunteering in service activities outside of the classroom."
All education has changed, said Fiore, who agrees that students are more job-oriented than in the past. "There is a trend toward professional education. There is no doubt about it. But at the same time there are ways that the Catholic values can be inserted and I think the universities that call themselves Catholic try to do that."
Fiore doesn't think that "this job-focus" is something to run away from or to denounce. People have to make a living and higher education is a step towards that.
"It's something we have to recognize and then work with. But it is a big challenge because you have to kind of orient your courses in new ways and package things in a different way to appeal to students and their primary interest."
Dr. Terrence Downey, president of Calgary's St. Mary's Catholic University College, said St. Mary's has been able to resist the changing trends by keeping a strong liberal arts base.
"We face societal pressures and I think that the key to this is to keep the good liberal arts tradition and also to engage the world confidently," he said.
"The Church has a very strong intellectual tradition of educating the whole person, of making them face the world with confidence, to not be afraid of change, to not be afraid of a world that has much different values than the Catholic institutions. In fact I think it stimulates the colleges and universities to meet those challenges."
Fr. Benjamin Fiore
Downey said that in fact St. Mary's has grown and developed side by side with the new challenges facing education.
"Our whole program here has been developed to face the world as it exists," he said. "The good university is constantly aware of what's out there and prepares itself to confront it.
"In that sense I think what we encourage here is that we confront these things head on and try to deal with them out of the root of our liberal arts tradition."
St. Mary's, the only independent Catholic college in Western Canada with 680 students, offers bachelor degrees of arts in general studies, English, history and psychology. "And we keep adding new degrees as we go.
"We offer courses in all disciplines, including science and mathematics, and we are also developing a Catholic bachelor of education degree which we hope we'll offer beginning in September 2008."
In light of the business scandals that have plagued the Western World and of the lack of understanding of the Muslim faith that became clear on 9/11 "we decided to make it mandatory that all students, no matter what their degrees are in, have to study ethics and theology (before they graduate)," Downey explained. "That's how we confront the modern world."
In addition to courses on the Catholic faith, St. Mary's also offers courses on world religions.
Downey said the notion that people studying liberal arts won't get jobs is misleading.
"We concentrate on a solid liberal arts education and if you give students that, they get jobs too," he said. "Business people tell us they like hiring liberal arts (graduates) because they've got a solid broad background."
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