For millennia societies have asked of themselves: what is a liberal education? What is it that every educated person should know, and why should they know it? Socrates, Plato, Locke, Rousseau, Newman, to name but a few, contributed to our modern notions of the value, purposes and content of higher learning.
The 21st-century version of this debate is more vigorous than ever, even as the imperatives of economic growth and the labour market occasionally threaten to drown out recognition of some of the most fundamental virtues of university study. Philosophers, ethicists, scientists and other scholars argue vehemently the merits and drawbacks of modernizing the canon, and the nature of those changes. These debates and changes strengthen our curriculum and enrich our students’ experiences.
But the university’s goal of providing an outstanding undergraduate education is about more than the debate regarding what should or should not appear on a list of great books. A liberal education should not define intellectual breadth as the passive consumption of a delineated set of works, the recitation of a set of facts, or a superficial acquaintance with the very latest theories within each discipline. Our principal preoccupation must be to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge and different types of inquiry: the tools of social analysis, historiography, literary studies, moral and quantitative reasoning, and scientific methods. In the simplest terms, we must focus on the capacity for critical thinking.
The intellectual strengths acquired as part of a liberal education are the basis for all educational endeavours that follow a first degree. They are the essential gifts of a university education, despite suggestions by some critics to the contrary. By insisting on a substantial liberal education, the university is by no means failing to prepare our students for the pace of change delivered by technological innovation and globalization. Indeed, a liberal education has never before been as valuable as it is today. The skills endowed by a liberal education permit us to sort knowledge from information; the eternal from the fashionable; the compelling from the appealing.
Neither is our commitment to liberal education in tension with our important work in science, technology and the professions. A liberal education must include the tools of scientific reasoning and quantitative analysis as essential elements. But it is equally true that any professional education must include familiarity with the different methods of reasoning, the possession of which define both an educated person and a good professional.
To advance our goals with respect to undergraduate education, U of T is introducing more structure to the baccalaureate requirements, in order to ensure that students acquire an appreciation for a wide range of analytical tools. During the 1960s and 1970s, North American students were granted much greater freedom to determine the parameters of their programs and degrees. While these changes unleashed major new interdisciplinary fields and fuelled significant innovations in the curriculum, the reduced structure risked undermining the essential requirements of a sound liberal education. As a result, U of T, like many other leading institutions, has begun to return to more curricular structure to ensure students have the necessary breadth and distribution of intellectual experiences.
The university must continue to work to ensure that this broad range of analytical tools is part of the curriculum of all our undergraduate programs. All our students – historians, engineers, lawyers, economists and scientists – should graduate with a well-developed capacity for critical thinking. This is the unique contribution of a university education and the hallmark of an educated citizenry.