Commentary  The decline of broader education

Today’s world recognizes the importance of societies’ educational excellence in economic growth. It is even treated as a measurable commodity and some international agencies have established education rankings by country based on results of students’ tests for reading, science, and math. Asian nations are leading and Canada is at the bottom of the top ten. Should we be worrying about this?

This approach narrows the notion of education to the transfer of knowledge and skills in a few utilitarian fields at the expense of the liberal arts. Ignored is an increased transmission of values when pursuing a well-rounded education. Canada, with rich didactic traditions, is nowadays similarly overwhelmed by the promoted unification of educational systems, which makes it easier to enforce efficiency in teaching key fields, but compromises diversity. Similar processes are occurring at the university level.

McGill’s Humanistic Studies program, created forty years ago in the Faculty of Arts, was cancelled last August. The fate of a planned similar program, called Liberal Arts, is unclear. Nobody protested the cancellation, which indicates that now, even at the university level, people are paying less attention to a broad education. It is tempting to say that the ruling financial spheres that control the Board of Governors aren’t interested in investing in the arts and humanities, because they would rather see even the best universities as a production line of narrow-minded specialists. Humanities programs focused on exploring the meaning, purpose, and goals of human existence are not only expensive, but also make the masses more difficult to control. Consistent with this approach, we now see administrative technocrats converting McGill into disconnected research units that produce alienated specialists.

However, we must be careful with such generalizations and the demonization of political elements because even debates about pedagogy and the structures of our educational institutions are fraught with ethical uncertainties. Education is treated as a career-oriented and market-driven tool. It is very sad to see gifted students avoiding each other as competitors instead of developing warmer social bonds. Yet once the students are lured into never-ending dogfights, they are more susceptible to many social manipulations. In the present world, even Nobel Prize winners are often treated as flashy marionettes in the hands of the media and bureaucrats who control research centres or universities. Do the most educated and wisest people play key roles in our modern, globalized world? If not, what kinds of people control the masses and which criteria are used to select these people?

The most worrying is a devilish spirit of educational rivalry implanted in the earliest stages of education that pervades the entire school system. Unfortunately, many children from poorer families are more likely to fall into this trap of studying for a specific skill or profession, while a few richer students are more likely to select well-rounded studies designed to develop intellectual growth. The rivalry encourages top students to learn more, but simultaneously narrows their horizons and subdues the development of beautiful and free human minds. As such, many schools start specializing kids even from the middle of high school to maximize their educational achievements in narrowed fields. The consequences are catastrophic.

It transforms the student into a repressed, highly stressed, robot-like entity, who is easily pushed around by market fluctuations.

It is never too late, and these negative changes can be significantly defused in our universities by reinvesting in the arts and humanities. The Humanistic Studies program created in 1970 allowed students to build their own liberal arts program out of the humanities and social sciences. Unfortunately, their influence gradually eroded because of underfunding, and because of the diminishing interest of students, who began pursuing narrower specializations that offered them more stable careers. People with a well-rounded education can more easily predict and avoid dangerous future developments, but are also more tempted to lure others into such traps. Is it not clear that this system is built to exploit human weakness to enhance the fastest profits?

Before directly fighting the many deep social injustices at work here, we need to transform the army of alienated specialists into insightful experts united by complex knowledge of our world. This can be achieved by hiring more people like Norman Cornett who “marry” arts and sciences, and even engineering. Proof: Our top-ranked McGill Medical School in recent years prefers students from a unique “Arts and Sciences” program at Marianopolis.

Slawomir Poplawski is a technician in the Mining and Materials Engineering department. Contact him at