National Post Higher education's best-kept secret (National Post November 19, 2008)


National Post - Wednesday November 19th, 2008


Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, November 19, 2008

When you can fill a small bookstore with eulogies of the liberal arts in our universities, you know you have an institution in trouble.

The catalyst for all the hand-wringing of the past two decades was Chicago professor Allan Bloom's 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. In it Bloom denounced the academy for its cultivation of a viral political correctness that has infected the entire Western world of "higher education," resulting in curricula whose animating theme is cultural self-hatred, a phenomenon unique in world history.

Since Bloom, the requiems have tumbled forth. I myself own an entire bookshelf of them, and a random glance at their titles tells the tale: Zero Tolerance, Humanism Betrayed, Brainwashed, The Betrayal of Intellect in Higher Education, Petrified Campus, plus many more.

They keep coming: Just published is Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, leading one reviewer to conclude, "It's safe to say that university humanities departments are more irrelevant now than ever before, the subject of much mockery and derision outside the ivied campuses." (How true: My collection of fictional send-ups of academic sclerosis is larger than the non-fiction).

My column last week was devoted to the deleterious effects of the self-esteem movement on students' readiness for higher learning, specifically the dumbing down of university standards and academic integrity. An unusually high amount of gloomy, but validating response from frustrated academics persuaded me a follow-up column was in order, this time suggesting alternatives for the motivated student yearning to breathe rational and culturally uplifting air.

For there are oases in the anti-Western academic wilderness, and even indications that a polite mutiny is in progress against the cultural self-loathing still being peddled in mainstream humanities departments.

Between 1990 and 2004 in the United States, enrolment went up 13% for public universities and 28% for private ones. But during the same period, enrolment in

Christian colleges was up a striking 70%. The surge reflects a change of focus in these schools from Christian proselytism to a more ecumenical emphasis on common Western values; non-religious, but culturally traditional students seeking a robust classical education can now find a comfortable intellectual home in these nominally religious precincts. Secular private institutions like Michigan's Hillsdale College are also flourishing.

Objective, market-driven online courses have gained ground too. Still, the ideal situation remains a long-term sojourn for the student within a physical community. Students and professors should have the necessary leisure to engage in what conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the "great conversation" around the magnificent intellectual and aesthetic heritages of Western civilization. Such paradises exist in Canada, but they are higher education's best-kept secret.

The Canadian bellwether for this model is the 30-year-old Liberal Arts College (LAC), a department within Montreal's Concordia University. LAC offers a three-year B. A. major/honours degree based on a Great-Books Core Curriculum. Administrators at Concordia refer to LAC as one of the university's "jewels in the crown."

The four-year Bachelor of Humanities program at the College of the Humanities (COTH) within Ottawa's Carleton University is similarly Great-Books based, but unlike LAC, which is exclusively Western-civilization oriented, incorporates materials from Asian and other civilizations.

From west to east there's Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Island University, Brock University and St. Thomas University --all offering undergraduate degrees for Great-Books based programs.

(Some other Canadian universities provide one-year Core-type programs, like the Foundation Year at Halifax's King's College, a Plato-to-NATO whirlwind. Better than nothing, but not a patch on a three to four year immersion in a distinct "sacred grove.")

The rallying body for these programs is the Vancouver-based Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC). The typical academic conference highlights narrowly-focused research papers within a single discipline. ACTC's annual interdisciplinary conferences focus on educational advances in the presentation of material common to everyone. In other words, ACTC is about holistic teaching -- that is, about the student -- not about furthering academics' insular careers.

There. I've exposed Canada's best-kept academic secret: Core Curricula. Don't look to them for ideologically freighted, constituency-oriented courses like "women's" or "queer" studies, nor for professors with "neo-colonialist" or "racialist" axes to grind. Free from all political fads, these programs are marked by intimate student-staff ratios, high intellectual standards and political neutrality.

Now you know where Canada's luckiest students and happiest humanities profs have been hiding. Spread the word.

bkay@videotron.ca