Should All University Students Take Some Liberal Arts?

By Shelly Wismath & Ken Coates

Shelly Wismath, the Dean of the School of Liberal Education at the University of Lethbridge, says yes.

The term “liberal arts” comes from the Latin liber, meaning free, and originally described the education given to free Roman citizens as preparation to participate in the running of their city-state. The original seven liberal arts included science and math (logic, geometry and astronomy), fine arts (music) and humanities clustered around grammar, logic and rhetoric. To the Romans, these were not separate subjects but were intertwined, as, for example, ratios of numbers related to music and to celestial orbits. The model of liberal education offered at the University of Lethbridge emphasizes this same broad and interconnected knowledge across all disciplines, with an emphasis on societal as well as personal benefits.

COVID-19 offers timely examples of complex issues that cannot be dealt with only by deep knowledge on a narrow topic. The pandemic has affected different communities, places and peoples differently, and addressing its impact requires knowledge from history, statistics, philosophy, ethics, business, sociology, math, biology and psychology. The development of COVID-19 vaccines is a superb scientific development, but the plans for rollout of the vaccines in Canada and in the world depended on many more disciplines: we needed ethical, social science, marketing, supply chain and logistics knowledge as we made decisions about who got vaccinated where and when and how. That the process relied on a diverse range of knowledge and skills underscores the absolute importance of the liberal education philosophy. Future scientists, for example, need to learn about the arts, business, social sciences and humanities, just as social scientists and humanists need quantitative skills and a grounding in what scientific evidence is and how it is used.

A broad and integrated education across a variety of disciplines that exposes students to viewpoints beyond their own majors both builds the individual and serves society. Beyond breadth, students in any liberal education discipline learn broadly transferable critical thinking skills. They learn to collect, organize, question and analyze information, to turn a huge mass of information into knowledge and wisdom. They practice using evidence and reasoning to form conclusions, and they learn to communicate these decisions in a way that can inform policy at a wider social level. These are crucial skills for employees in the 21st century, as many young people must prepare for careers that haven’t been invented yet. COVID-19 has only accelerated the pace of change, and strong transferable job skills will be increasingly in demand as employers seek people who can identify and solve problems in various contexts. Global issues such as pandemics and climate change also highlight the need for these skills on a societal level too, for broad and careful thinkers who can participate in decision-making at all levels, from local to global.


Ken Coates, the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, says no.

With enrolments in humanities and social sciences declining and interest in technical, health and business programs surging, many Canadians are worried. As a professional historian with a profound respect for the liberal arts, I too am concerned. Liberal arts students, pursuing a broad education not focused on specific employability, often enjoy rewarding careers. Defenders of the liberal arts eloquently promote the foundational academic disciplines, noting correctly their big contributions to the economic, social, ethical, climatic and technological challenges of the 21st century.

However, mandating a liberal arts course or two for all undergraduates will not set things right.

Breadth requirements have existed for decades. Students are typically made to take courses in sciences, languages, social sciences or the humanities. The arrangements are rarely reciprocal. Arts students aren’t required to take engineering, business or even fine arts electives, which is odd given the arguments for broad and comprehensive education.

Requiring all students to take liberal arts courses works in some cases. Engineering students studying ethics gain insight into human behaviour. On occasion, an accounting student will switch to a program in international studies or classics based on taking a mandatory liberal arts course. Routinely, however, students resent being “forced”—a common description—to take a class outside their major or degree program.

Institutions often mount special courses so students can fulfill a breadth requirement—for example in astronomy, biology or geology, to provide non-science students with a science credit. Comparable courses are offered in the social sciences and humanities, or students flock to introductory psychology or sociology classes. These address the literal requirements for academic diversity without reflecting the real spirit of the idea.

Liberal arts courses taught by strong instructors to engaged students can be downright magical. In the hands of a truly gifted instructor, a course delivered even to recalcitrant students can have a lifelong impact. But reality often falls well short of the ideal. Students taking courses they’d rather avoid often skip classes, focus on grades alone or resent the time “lost.”

In theory it’s a fine idea for all students to get a broad education, even though it runs counter to the current preoccupation with employability and practical skills. In practice, mandating one or two liberal arts courses in a program that typically runs to 40 courses over four years is unlikely to have a substantial academic or intellectual impact. In the end, aggressive liberal arts breadth requirements serve mainly to protect jobs and enrolments in the traditional disciplines.

Students must be prepared for a complex and fast-changing world. But minor adjustments to program requirements create more resentment than growth in graduates’ understanding. We can do much better than apply such a thin academic band-aid.


Shelly Wismath responds to Ken Coates

I was pleased to read Ken Coates’s remarks about how students should not be required to take liberal arts courses, or, more broadly, courses outside their majors. In fact I see his words as an argument for more and better such courses.

He’s right that students often don’t like such a requirement or learn much from an individual course, especially when it is arbitrarily chosen and doesn’t integrate well with their other learning. But at universities we build programs based on what students will need in their careers and in their social and civic lives. Universities thus have an obligation to provide engaging and thought-provoking learning experiences, in more (and better) breadth courses specially designed for this broader purpose.

The University of Lethbridge has been through exactly this process in recent years. Over 54 years we have evolved from a primarily undergraduate and liberal-education focused university into a comprehensive research university, and along the way lost our full vision for liberal education. By the early 2000s we were left with a breadth-only model of liberal education, although we required more than a single token course: each undergraduate student had to take four courses from each of three lists, Social Sciences, Sciences, and Fine Arts and Humanities. In practice this meant eight courses from the two lists outside of their majors. Students often chose their list courses based on easiness and timetable rather than intellectual growth, and didn’t get much out of them.

Our process of revitalizing liberal education since 2014, and the formation of the School of Liberal Education in 2017, addressed these issues. We have better articulated our vision of liberal education in terms of goals for student learning, and we have developed courses that allow students to explicitly work on those goals. We discuss how their courses and related experiences contribute to their development of not only career skills but engagement and citizenship skills. Beyond lots of “Intro to Discipline X” courses on the lists from a range of departments, we also offer a number of specifically liberal education-designated courses within the School, covering first year to final year and providing broad critical-thinking analyses of various topics.

Student appreciation of this model is shown in a doubling of our enrolment in our liberal education courses in the last few years. Students who take one such course very often come back for more.

We know that many students pursuing a broad education not focused from the start on a specific career goal do end up in rewarding careers. A 2019 Georgetown University study of 4,500 US colleges asked whether a post-secondary education is worth it and concluded, “based on earnings alone, yes, it is.” A Washington Post analysis of the Georgetown study determined that “over the course of a career, a liberal arts education is remarkably practical, providing a median return on investment 40 years after enrollment that approaches $1-million. That return on a liberal arts education is often not immediate or on a linear path… but over the decades of a career, it is solid.” (The Georgetown study acknowledged that “investing in a college education has greater effects on a person’s life than investing in the stock market… [But] it may take years for the investment to pay off, since the value of the degree lies in what a person does with it.”)

Tech industry CIO Rob Sentz has estimated that about 70 per cent of liberal arts graduates do something completely different when they go from their first stable job to their second. In a rapidly changing job market, that model of a career path is happening not just in the liberal arts but in all areas of study.

Universities have not always done a good job of articulating what their graduates bring to the changing marketplace. For example, universities value critical thinking and the ability to conduct research, which are not terms one would necessarily see in a job ad but are in fact important employment skills. They represent evidence-based reasoning capability: collecting, evaluating and summarizing information, checking assumptions and locating gaps in knowledge, identifying better approaches, putting together new conclusions, and then communicating and defending those conclusions. These abilities are valuable across disciplines and job categories and are also important life skills.

In any area of study, a university degree program is a four-year apprenticeship in learning to think. Any employer who wants employees to go beyond rote tasks should welcome the broad-based knowledge and skills described here. Our own University of Lethbridge alumni have told us that it’s your degree that gets you your first job, but it’s your liberal education that gets you your second and third jobs and builds your career.

And while careers are important, the value of a liberal education is greater still, encouraging our graduates to use their broad capacity as engaged participants in civic society at all levels to help build a better world.


Ken Coates responds to Shelly Wismath

I respect Shelly Wismath’s submission on the liberal arts and share almost all the convictions and ideas she offers. She does an excellent job of reminding us of the many and valuable contributions the liberal arts make to personal and collective development. But she strays well away from the main question in this debate: Should all university students be required to take a course or courses in the liberals arts?

Wismath seems to miss the irony in her first sentence, in which she connects the concept of the liberal arts to the Latin word liber, meaning “free.” She then proceeds to argue that classes in the liberal arts should be made mandatory, the opposite of “free.” I agree that students would benefit from advanced education in the social sciences, humanities and fine arts, just as they would all benefit from studies in the health, natural and physical sciences. A broad education is certainly valuable for all students and for citizens at large.

But that isn’t the question at hand. We’re discussing the merits and demerits of requiring all students, regardless of academic or professional program, to take a course or courses in the liberal arts. This is far from a new idea. Many institutions have had breadth requirements for decades, requiring students to take classes outside their majors. Arts students typically complete a mandatory science course—often a targeted class in biology, geography or astronomy but stripped of much rigour and substance (and often of the laboratory elements).

Mandatory courses are, at best, a mixed blessing. Students don’t like being directed into classes that aren’t, in their largely unschooled minds, relevant to their chosen discipline or career. Years ago, first-year students at many universities had to take an introductory English literature course, an idea that sat poorly with many of them. A broad list of courses, generally tied to writing requirements, gradually replaced the literature class, and many academic disciplines’ enrolment benefited from universities compelling students to take these classes.

Where I disagree with Wismath—and it’s a small but important distinction—is in her choice of words. She makes confident assertions about liberal arts courses. The students “learn to collect,” “practise using evidence,” “learn broadly transferable critical thinking skills,” and “learn to communicate these decisions.” Wismath is describing the ideal of a comprehensive liberal arts education, not necessarily the reality. She certainly isn’t describing the impact on students from a course or two.

It would be more accurate to say students have an opportunity to gain these experiences, skills and competencies. Some faculty provide many and diverse learning experiences, and most work exceptionally hard. But students can’t learn if they aren’t in class, don’t complete their reading and don’t participate in class discussions. Making a course mandatory doesn’t ensure that students engage fully and enthusiastically.

The reality of undergraduate education is often much different than the ideal. First-year withdrawal rates in all but the elite universities range from 20 per cent to 50 per cent of all entrants. Attendance is often poor. Professors routinely complain about students’ unpreparedness for class and low-quality work. Some classes have hundreds of students, with assignments graded by graduate students. Wismath argues students benefit from a liberal arts education. That is a far from uniform outcome.

But the issue at hand is much narrower than the broad contours of a liberal arts education. We’re discussing whether universities should require all students to take a course or two in the liberal arts. Put aside for now the fact that most programs already include some breadth requirements. Recognize instead that taking just a course or even two is not sufficient to provide the many benefits that can come from a comprehensive liberal arts program. Further, because students resent mandatory liberal arts courses, universities either produce a smorgasbord of courses to meet the requirement or a course specially designed for non-liberal-arts students, in both cases limiting the effectiveness of this effort at intellectual breadth and social preparation.

Canadians must have an open and frank conversation about the prerequisites for a well-educated and informed citizenry. Reading has declined dramatically. Newspaper readership and attention to TV news have dropped precipitously. TikTok, YouTube and Facebook are no replacement for informed and curated content. Canada has done very well in providing learners with pathways to academic credentials. But at a societal level, including the K–12 system, we need a serious examination of the fundamentals of education and social learning.

Wismath is correct about the personal and societal value of a liberal arts education. But the argument that making liberal arts courses mandatory will somehow produce a better-informed and empowered citizenry is far from compelling. Our broader educational system has lost its way. A tiny and compulsory step toward intellectual breadth won’t suffice to address this.


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