Commentary | Piñata Diplomacy: In defence of Humanistic Studies

“Le vrai science et la vrai étude de l’homme, c’est l’homme.” – Pierre Charon, Catholic theologian, 1601

Scuttlebutt is that the Faculty of Arts is considering, once again, to axe the Humanistic Studies program. This would be an enormous mistake.

Humanistic Studies is an interdisciplinary program offering both major and minor concentrations, with two required classes: Western Humanistic Tradition 1 & 2. Students choose all the other credits, which are spread across history of fine arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, to fashion specific concentrations in one of these areas.

When I was on the phone with my grandma during my first week at McGill, I told her I was enrolling in Humanistic Studies, and that the fundamental concern of the program was to examine what it means to be human. She asked me, “What do you need to study that for? I’m a human; I’ll tell you all about it.” Sweet woman. You’d love her.

I would also tell the would-be Humanistic Studies murders what I told my grandma: It’s way more than that. Humanistic Studies is a fantastically necessary program, a throwback to the Greek and Renaissance traditions of comprehensive education.

The existence of the program is predicated on the idea that modern collegiate education seems to focus on single-track, career-oriented, quasi-apprenticeship “training.” The typical student enters university to attain the knowledge that will be necessary for success in their chosen field, be that field law, medicine, kinesiology, or what have you. Everything’s so specific. All is decided; the student just needs to be provided with the necessary tools of the trade.

But is this really a practicable method, especially in an era when people cycle through several careers throughout their lives?

Comprehensive liberal education is crucially important. Perhaps it’s unnecessary for the person who’s set on becoming a specialist in neurodegenerative diseases in bovines. But for others who care naught for such specialization, it is vitally important. The primary goal is not to teach how to do, but how to become.

Further, the Humanistic Studies program fills a niche that would otherwise go unfilled. There is a certain type of student – me – who would otherwise be without an academic home at McGill. This type of student comes to McGill not to amass, but to explore.

Despite all this, Humanistic Studies is not a perfect program. One of the reasons why I’m a minor and not a major in the program is because there are not enough mandatory courses for it to feel like a cohesive curriculum. The number of required courses should be bumped up to four, which would allow the classes to cover material in more depth. It is not as if they could ever run out of material. It is, after all, about everything. There is no reason for discarding the entire program when all it needs is a little concentrated reform.

If McGill follows through on its plan to cut the program, students currently enrolled in the program would still be able to finish their degrees; so this cancellation would not apply to me. Yet the fight certainly must be fought, if only for those future students who would wish to reap the many fruits of a comprehensive liberal education.

I don’t expect an undergraduate uprising over the proposed demise of some obscure interdisciplinary program, but I do expect the administration to take notice that some would perceive its action as a forceful declaration that the idea of a comprehensive education is, in fact, effectively moribund as far as McGill is concerned.

Humanistic Studies is certainly not a program for everyone. Some students either don’t require or don’t wish to acquire a broadly liberal education. Fine. Best of luck to them. But those who threaten the existence of the program need to recognize that its proposed cancellation would amount to the official alienation of a portion – and by no means an insignificant portion – of today’s young adults: namely, those who wish to manifest at McGill the keen aphorism by William Butler Yeats that appears on the glass walls of the Cyberthèque: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”


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