I greatly enjoyed, and benefited from, the time I spent as an undergraduate. I went to a small university which was focussed on undergraduate (B.A., B.Sc.) studies in the humane letters and core sciences. Its main distinction was not its specific programmes (although it had a few interdisciplinary areas: Environmental Studies, Native Studies, Canadian Studies) but its overall undergraduate focus, with small tutorials, a liberal arts orientation, and faculty who (in the absence of graduate studies) could focus on the more junior students.
The disciplines I took - English, Classics (Greek), Mathematics, French - had decently structured curricula and requirements which not only ensured that one would, if a major, get an even grounding in the discipline, but would also he able to plan fairly clearly what one wanted to take (for example, second year Greek offered a prose course (Attic 5th century) and a poetry course on Epic and Tragedy (a book of the Odyssey, a book of the Iliad, a tragedy by Sophocles, a tragedy by Euripides); as a Minor student I took the latter). The English curriculum had a few holes in its requirements - if one wanted to, one could graduate with an honours major without ever taking one of Milton or Pope (but not both) - but otherwise provided the necessary courses for a solid grounding. The French department required all majors to take Corneille and Racine, which made sense, given their preeminence. (I dabbled, having a lycée background in French Literature, and studied French poetry instead: I had already has my exposure to Polyeucte and Phèdre and wanted to cover some topics I hadn't already been as thoroughly exposed to.)
I received (yet another) appeal via e-mail for donations as an alumnus. I had been hearing things about the current state of the place - my father is a Professor Emeritus - and noting that advertisements I saw on the subway were increasingly vocation-oriented; so I downloaded a copy of the current academic calendar.
They've trashed the place. Why I say that will take a bit of explaining.
Why do we consider humane letters - literature, classics, history - to be worth supporting with public money for study at a university level?
The strictly utilitarian answer, represented recently by the Federal CPC's higher education policy, is that the study improves critical thinking to prepare students for the business world. However, this is at best an argument for some form of post-secondary education, and not for specific forms which are, honestly, as far away from the requirements of business as you can reasonably get before crossing over into the fine arts. This is the basis of innumerable jokes regarding arts majors ("Do you want fries with that?").
In fact, the use of first degrees as credentialism is well-embedded in HR departments mainly as a shortcut, weeding out people whose capacity was insufficient to get through a degree rather than preferencing those whose skills were enhanced by four years of studying Aelfric, Baudelaire, Greek particles, or the Raj. (It also has a less upfront goal of weeding out working class or poor students whose access to the system was less easy, and whose ability to succeed in university was conditioned, even once they got access, to mimic their middle-class co-students.)
And it certainly does not answer the question of why public money supports research into, say, Alcuin's letters.
(At the other extreme, the idea of pure "ivory tower" research, if taken seriously, may be a justification for funding, but it doesn't provide a model for what to fund; nor does it provide a reason why students who are not focussed on being dedicated scholars should be pressed into such an environment for three or four years.)
Note that I'm using funding as a shorthand for "social support": in some systems there is no public funding as such - just about any system until the mid 19th Century, to begin with - but there's a social/philosophical reason why such institutions have a (usually high-status) place made for them.
It's a much rehashed area, beginning (arbitrarily) with Newman and proceeding forward through modern educational arguments, and with roots going hack through the Querelle des Anciens et Modernes to the curricula of the ancient and mediaeval worlds. Anything I have to say about it will be profoundly unoriginal.
Two lines of thought seem to me to be fruitful, though.
First, as a culture and a society, we define our commonalities and values by reference to a bundle of core givens including art, literature, certain historical narratives. For literature and the arts, these form canons.
We can't really get away from this. We can drop and add works to a canon, ignore or rediscover or add in historical sub-narratives, and even allow for simultaneous but differing sets to coexist together as long as they share some common values (see, for example, Wieselter's Kaddish for a sense of what western history looks like from inside a Jewish perspective). A curriculum which officially rejects "the Canon" in favour of including works from marginalized voices is not escaping from the canonical but merely expanding the Canon at the behest of certain fundamental values.
Much of the 19th Century enterprise in American literature was about trying to define a Canon for that part of the New World. Like all such efforts, it built on what had come before - Shakespeare was wildly popular, Longfellow translated Dante, Bunyan was important, Milton influential - but added in new themes and authors: Thoreau, Twain, Hawthorne, Melville. The American Revolution and Civil War provided historical narratives used to define USAn identity.
The same can be said of the mid 20th Century and Canada: Davies, Atwood, Laurence, Richler, Munro, and so on have become (partly for quality and partly for other reasons) a substantial part of a high school curriculum and Canadian Literature has a secure place in any Canadian English Department. (Note that it's open at a tertiary education level to ignore parts of a broad canon in favour of getting a groundwork in foundations: an argument can be made that the serious study of literature in English can be best grounded in a study of the generally best and most influential works, which would tend to emphasize more heavily older works and those with an international impact.)
For the past several centuries, a normative mix would have been (still is, in many ways): material from the classical world (my daughter's grade 9 English course has a Greek mythology component, and she is able to take Latin; at large, classical literary themes, philosophy, and history still play a significant role in public discourse and thought); from the English Renaissance (mainly Shakespeare in the schools, but the Tudors and Stuarts still occupy a niche in our collective memory palace); from the early 19th Century and the Napoleonic Wars, although the Romantics and Scott have faded out somewhat. The Victorians maintain a foothold in both popular and scholarly culture. World War II now occupies a large block of the collective history remembered generally (look at the history section in any bookstore), and more recent, local histories and narratives supplement the core, as do some reflecting minority viewpoints.
Secondly, although the old belief in the extensive benefits of an education in humane letters has been somewhat constrained by the experience of the 20th Century - see Steiner's Language and Silence - there is still an argument to be made that such an education produces benefits in the recipients which make them better and more informed citizens, possibly more discerning moral agents, and better equipped to improve their own quality of life.
This argument leans on both arms of the old defenses of literature as pleasant and utile, and on the perception that not learning history condemns one to repeat it. (Of course, one could repeat it in any case, like the Bourbons, forgetting nothing and learning nothing. You can lead a horse to water...) As such, it relies on the choice of topic, preferring the better over the worse as topics of study.
(As an aside, yes, there really are such absolute distinctions, unless one is genuinely ready to consider Milton the peer of Heavysedge).
The new curricula have thrown all that overboard. There are no longer, for example, any firm requirements regarding what one has to take to get a major in English. The department recommends some groupings, and a dedicated serious student could more or less approximate the courses I took, but the majority of courses are thematic in nature, some restricted to a given period, some diachronic. The better courses would in fact - at least as titles - make good graduate courses for students who already had a solid grounding; as undergraduate courses they amont to dabbling.
The modern language department website does not talk about literature at all; it's all about the uses of language in government or business. There are some courses in the standard canonical French texts in the syllabus, but none are required for a major in French (some small amount of study of Québécois literature is mandatory).
There is no set content for courses in Greek; they are of the form "Continuation of ancient Greek syntax and grammar, followed by readings from ancient authors". No specific texts are listed; conceivably the same course could be Homer in one year (it's at the level I took Homer at), Xenophon in another, and Procopius in a third, based on the inclinations of the teacher.
Cross-disciplinary programmes abound. I love good cross-disciplinary work, but the good work I see is produced by authors who have spent their years in the trenches of slog.
There's a frequent vocational tone to the material addressed to students: "Students of philosophy develop advanced skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication – valuable foundations in any number of career choices"; "You will develop exceptional research and communication skills [in History] that can be applied across many career options". We have let our community colleges become universities, but we our universities, at the undergraduate level, are promoting themselves as glorified community colleges.
(As far as skills in the workplace go, I'm not sure I use any skills which I did not develop in high school or, alternatively, on my own and not in my university years (like computer programming). I did start out for about six or seven years using knowledge I acquired in Law School, which is a very different kettle of fish from an undergraduate programme.)
Put bluntly, the appeal is a combination of the superficially glitzy and the unabashedly mercantile.
This "small university" is now four times the size it was in my day; they have sold their birthright for growth (and considerably upped the size of the graduate programme as well: the government funds graduate students much better than undergraduates.
The characteristics which I consider the important ones from my day are gone. I can no longer in good faith recommend it to someone looking for advice on university choice.
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