Liberal arts philosophy reinforced by distribution course requirements

Post-secondary education more than just career paths and financial gain

As per the 2017-18 academic calendar, BA and BSc students at Mount Allison must complete two courses from each of the four distribution areas (arts, humanities, social world and natural science). Within each area, the two courses must also be from different disciplines. In requiring students to take courses from outside of their academic discipline, the argument outlined in the academic calendar is that distribution requirements encourage breadth of study, in keeping with Mt. A’s philosophy of a liberal arts education. The liberal arts value and cultivate an avid curiosity, critical thinking and creative synthesis. They endeavour to instil in students a readiness to interrogate closely, argue cogently and judge fairly.

That said, in promoting wide-ranging studies, Mt. A is fighting an uphill battle. Writing in Harper’s Magazine, William Deresiewicz describes changes in higher education occurring in the US, where undergraduates increasingly major in vocational fields such as business, education and health. He explains that at universities and colleges throughout the country, the most popular majors are those that are practical or favoured by the market. Students gravitate toward economics, biology, engineering and computer science, all fields where they assume the jobs will be. Statistics published by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada indicate a similar trend north of the border.

The distribution credit system immerses students in a diverse range of subject matter. Sarah Noonan/Argosy

In step, or even in anticipation, universities have sought to exploit the economic potentiality of students, commodifying their education in the process. This is done through rankings of fields of study by average starting salary, as if earning power were the paramount benefit of a degree. Subject to a narrow, monetised conception of knowledge, universities dismiss anything which appears impractical or not measurable in monetary terms – i.e., the values fostered by the liberal arts.

The result is what Deresiewicz calls the “neoliberal arts,” wherein knowledge pursued as an end itself has no place, and instead must have direct application and serve the market. Any notions that learning may have any intrinsic value are disregarded. As a result, only the market purpose of education remains: universities exist simply to transform students into members of the workforce. The pervasive logic of neoliberalism displaces the academic and moral purposes of higher education. Neoliberal ideology has shifted the discourse, making it harder to justify an education driven by a liberal arts philosophy.

Mt. A has chosen to distinguish itself and uphold the philosophy of a liberal arts education. The distribution requirements reflect the need to see higher education in terms of its academic and moral purposes, instead of simply in terms of how it serves the market. Mt. A’s 2017-18 distribution requirements ensure the liberal arts stand fast in the age of neoliberalism, yet it remains to be seen how students will respond to these requirements and whether a liberal arts education will ultimately benefit them.

Isaac Doucette