The importance of an undergraduate degree

Post-secondary education cultivates sense of global citizenship

Last month I had the privilege of representing Mount Allison at an event hosted at Bishop’s University for the U4 Universities—Acadia, Bishop’s, Mt. A and St. Francis Xavier. I gave a TEDx talk on the role and purpose of an undergraduate education, discussing the responsibility held by small undergraduate universities to offer a moral education to our changing world.

The current changes began, in many ways, on Nov. 9, 1989, with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. It was a watershed moment, the antithesis of Churchill’s famous pronouncement that an iron curtain had descended across the continent. Indeed, as the Berlin Wall fell, it symbolized the opening up of not just the continent, but also the world. Suddenly, in a very different way, it was a global world and we were becoming aware that we were global citizens. New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman highlighted the shift taking place in his books, including The Lexus and the Olive Tree, The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat and Crowded. We were witness to a mass movement of people like never before, the dissemination of technology, information and communication, and the movement of money in and out of economies halfway around the world in dramatically new ways. The world suddenly did seem a little more accessible.

In the midst of this change, those of us providing student services and teaching at the small universities naturally posed questions about how we might respond: How does an undergraduate education prepare us for the reality of a changed world? What does being global citizens mean in regard to the way we teach, or what we teach, or the very goals of higher education? The answer is simple, and the answer is to keep doing what we have always done, and done well: Engage in the pursuit of knowledge in a way that leads to good, or moral, action.

We learn not only knowledge, but we learn with open minds to assess and evaluate and even pass judgement on the knowledge of the world, to consider what we need to know, and more importantly, what to do with that knowledge. We need to learn about our world, to be aware and ready to respond and act. This is the spiritual spine of liberal arts, its raison d’être, the lifeblood of the small liberal studies university. The goal of the university, if in fact it has a goal, is to move us to act morally, responsibly, empathetically—to make a difference in the world. This, then, is the moral goal of the university: not just to teach knowledge but to interpret it, not just to visit the world but to engage it, not just to live in the world but to act carefully and responsibly in it. It is, in essence, thinking globally and acting locally in ways that have global implications.

This will change us, but it is also education into global citizenship, not just trying to change the world but being open to being changed by it. It is good to reaffirm that our work includes nurturing and teaching students to hold a moral vision of acting in the world, in ways which make a difference.

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