College Quarterly
Spring 2004 - Volume 7 Number 2

The Common Sense Assault on a Liberal Education

by Kim Fedderson

Three years ago, I was in Edmonton at the annual meeting of the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Alberta. In between conference sessions, I hopped on a bus and headed out to the West Edmonton Mall. I have a fascination with huge malls, and the West Edmonton was a must see for me. Like the exemplary postmodern space it is, by design it violates ontological boundaries: things that in reality exist in different times and different spaces come together within the mall to form a divergent and fractured totality. Moving within the mall one encounters diverse climates (there's a indoor beach and wave pool, there's a skating rink and spectral Gretzky, there's a new world lagoon) and distinct places and times (there's a simulated old European street, a Dickensian laneway, a 21st century food court, an amusement park). All of these constructed images are in the service of one activity-shopping, shopping, shopping.

Frederic Jamieson calls postmodernism the "cultural logic of late capitalism" and within the simulated spaces of the mall we see why. All of these divergent cultural images provide the context for the exchange of commodities: many of the goods and services we and others produce during the work week in the space beyond the lots of the mall are consumed within it during our leisure time. Within the mall, the forms of production and consumption that characterize our society meet.

As I walked through the mall (and let me confess, I was there as a consumer; coming from Thunder Bay with a bad case of mall-envy, I was on the prowl for new running shoes), I had one of those moments where I suddenly felt completely estranged from the environment I was in.

Here's what caused my dislocation. I really wanted to see the submarine ride that I had read about. I have always been captivated by submarines. The submarines were not where I thought they would be; they weren't in the amusement park area where I first checked, nor were they near the water in the beach area-proving that the logic of the postmodern mall environment is not consistent with the either the natural environments or cultural spaces most of us are familiar with.

The submarines were in another area altogether, and when I stumbled upon them my attention was immediately diverted to another attraction. Adjacent to the submarine ride was a small pond which contained a number of dolphins, real dolphins, not simulations. The fifteenth-century galleon called the Santa Maria birthed beside them was a simulation, but these dolphins were real. I watched them perform all sorts of marvelous tricks. They were obviously very well trained. I thought to myself that they had been schooled in all kinds of things, but their education had left out what Matthew Arnold would have called "the one thing most needful." It hadn't trained them to be free. They apparently knew how to do everything to secure a life within the pond, but what they needed to know was that they didn't belong in a pond in a mall.

My speculations on the dialectic of domination and submission were interrupted, when I realized that I was not alone. I had become part of a crowd that had gathered for the 2:15 p.m. dolphin show. I began to watch the people as they watched the dolphins and realized that they too had been schooled in all kinds of things: they had been taught to adapt to this environment. They/we knew how to acquire the money that would allow us to come to the mall to buy the commodities out of which we construct our lives. We were every bit as trained as the dolphins, engaged in behaviors that would give us our daily ration, but, like the dolphins, subject to the dominating logic of our culture-drawn to the mall by ever more novel diversions to buy commodities-the Nike this, the Gap that-from which we construct our "unique" individual identities. Like the bucket of fish tossed to dolphins as a reward for a trick, the 2:15 dolphin show was just a lure for the 2:15 human show. Adrift in the mall, I wondered how creatures as intelligent as the dolphins had been trained to accept their submission and how creatures as intelligent as us had come to accept ours.

As Joe Strummer of the Clash says, "I was all lost in the supermarket. I could no longer shop happily."

And what you might ask has this to do with liberal arts? A great deal. Today, many people question the relevance of liberal arts education in an economy such as ours, which is based on commodity consumption. In many respects, a liberal arts education frequently gets in the way, producing just the kind of alienation I have described, thus frustrating the goal of turning out the next generation of happy, well adjusted, docile and tractable producers and consumers. Our former premier, Mike Harris, may not have completed university, but he knows this. In February 2000, he said "We seem to be graduating more people who are great thinkers, but they know nothing about math or science or engineering or the skill sets that are needed" (Globe & Mail 28/2/2000). Harris knows the kind of skill sets that we need to produce and consume happily; he also knows the liberal arts aren't a part of them.

Harris' position on the liberal arts became apparent when the provincial government revealed which Ontario university programs would be funded from the $742 million Superbuild fund it had established to renovate and expand postsecondary educational opportunities within the province. The liberal arts-humanities and social science subjects-were almost entirely ignored. Harris countered the initial criticism his government received by saying he was simply responding to proposals the universities themselves had made: "we haven't had very many universities saying they need to expand history and Latin and English departments. We have a lot of universities saying they have a huge demand for engineering, for mathematics, for a lot of these new programs. So we're responding to their requests" (Globe & Mail, 3/2/2000). He also countered: "We're very supportive of liberal arts and continue to fund them to the same levels that students wish to take those programs, and the same levels as they have been in the past" (Globe & Mail 24/2/2000). Despite his efforts to redirect criticism and provide reassurances, Harris was caught out by the pundits. John Ibbitson, the Globe and Mail's Queen's Park reporter, an otherwise not unsympathetic commentator on the provincial PCs, spelled it out: "Mike Harris has embarked upon nothing less than a Common Sense Revolution in postsecondary education. The government intends to stream the coming swell of college and university students away form the humanities and social sciences and into computers, engineering, medical research and communication courses. With the province's elementary and secondary education systems already massively restructured by the Progressive Conservatives, students from kindergarten to graduate school will now focus on preparing for the 21st century workforce. Rather than expanding the mind, education will now train it" (Globe & Mail, 28/2/2000).

This attack on the humanities is rather curious when put into an historical perspective. Speaking before a group of engineers in Toronto earlier this year, former Premier Harris asked them "where would you be if you had studied philosophy and Latin?" (Globe & Mail 2/2000). Just before the turn of the century-the previous century-Matthew Arnold reflected on the same question and concluded that one of the best defenses against anarchy was ensuring that those with technical ability were familiar with the ends for which technique was deployed. He saw the understanding of cultural ends that proceeds from the study of the liberal arts as essential to the maintenance of social order. And most liberal humanist educators since then have endorsed the Arnoldian perspective; thus we have all been required to have some passing familiarity with what Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said." That's why we have traditionally required everyone who walks through the doors of a Western high school to study a little Shakespeare, a little Dickens.

What changes have caused the liberal arts to fall from this high eminence? How is that something once deemed essential, could become largely irrelevant?

In order for any society to perpetuate itself, it must ensure that the physical conditions necessary for its perpetuation are in place and will remain in place. A hunting and gathering society must have land on which to hunt and gather, an agricultural society must have fields to plant, an industrial society must have factories to produce goods and markets in which to distribute them. The perpetuation of a particular form of society, however, also requires that individuals living in that society share a relatively cohesive cultural consensus about how a society should be. This cultural consensus which, in industrial societies like ours, has traditionally been passed on to successive generations in institutions such as the home, school, churches, etc., must ensure that the majority of individuals in any given society feel the logic of their particular social formation. They must learn to feel that their society's ways of doing things-ways of living, working, loving, making children, raising children, teaching children, and ways of dying-are, while not immutable, relatively just, good, or right.

Every social formation requires a cultural justification, a representation of its raison d'etre which will ensure the creation, maintenance, and perpetuation of individuals who will feel the legitimacy, if not the inevitability, of their particular social formation. Roland Barthes, the late French cultural theorist, calls these representations myths, and these myths, in his view, have the function of giving culture the appearance of nature. The particular, historical, often idiosyncratic and provisional ways a given society arranges lives within it must be given the appearance of being facts of nature. Myths make a contingent way of doing appear a matter of necessity. This cultural justification must convey the "rightness" of current social practices and values. It must give a justification to living, to work, to leisure.

In the West, organized religion used to do this but, as early as the 19th century, there was a sense that religion was struggling to provide the cultural ties that would bind. Matthew Arnold recognized that the emerging industrial economy could no longer find its justification in "the sea of faith." He recognized that religion was at best a residual cultural logic belonging to the largely agricultural and feudal society that England had been but was no more. As the explanations that religion had given for inequities in society-differences of power, wealth and prestige-no longer compelled widespread assent, new sources of legitimation had to be found. And Arnold found them in English literature. He thought that literature could provide a new cultural consensus, and he found within the English canon a cultural justification for his society, one which could, without violence, yoke contending classes into a harmonious whole. Poetry would be called upon to keep anarchy at bay.

What religious ritual was expected to do for pre-reformation Roman Catholics, what sermons and Bible study were expected to do for Protestants, literature would do secular modernity. Of course, literature could only do this if all classes knew how to read. And, not surprisingly, Arnold, and the liberal humanist educators that followed his lead, were deeply committed to educational projects which would ensure that all members of society had the skills necessary to connect with these sources of cultural legitimation. Northrop Frye, the late Canadian literary critic and theorist, shared this Arnoldian concern for education. He viewed literature as an unfolding "secular scripture" which justified a way of living. The study of literature would create an "educated imagination," Frye's term for what I have called here a cultural logic.

But the ways in which we can come into contact with the cultural logic of our culture have changed a great deal in the last forty years.

Today's cultural consensus no longer comes from biblical or literary sources that require high order literacy skills for their successful negotiation. Now, that consensus comes from TV, radio, movies-forms, which do not require high order literacy skills for their consumption. These new sources of legitimation are much more efficient in getting their messages across. It takes at least a couple years of schooling to teach someone to read Cinderella and learn the narrative of inequality and romantic subordination ("someday my prince will come") that the story contains (note that I am not talking about learning how to read this narrative critically; that takes a whole lot more time). Viewing this narrative dramatized on TV or on film requires decidedly less training, arguably next to no training. Press "power" on the remote and there it is. Pay your admission to Silver City and there it is.

Those who regard the Humanities and Social Sciences as an irrelevance, or, worse, a nuisance, know that in our current social formation we access the myths which legitimate our lives through new media. They know that we longer need the high-order interpretive skills or the training, the expense, or the time required to attain these skills to become adequately socialized within our culture. They also know that the skills that we require in order to use these new media are undeniably less threatening to common sense revolutions, or any other revolution, for that matter.

Unlike Arnold, they know that literacy is as much a threat to states as it is their salvation. The literacy that accompanies a liberal arts education is just as likely to produce heresy as it is consent. Let me provide two examples: no sooner had Renaissance Protestants used literacy to undo the Roman Catholic church than the very same set of skills, the ability to read and make up one's own mind about meaning, splintered the protesting groups into proliferating sects and factions. No sooner had Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest taught Caliban to speak, and thus take up his place as denigrated underling in Prospero's civilization, than Caliban learned how to curse. As we acquire the skills required to read the culture we are expected to assent to, we can, if given the chance, acquire along the way a critical disposition, a skeptical habit of mind. We learn that meaning is made: an individual act of will and intelligence is required to turn letters into words. We also learn that meaning is subject to social constraint. As we all know from high school, and perhaps university English classes, not all meanings are valued equally; out of the range of possible meanings, some meanings are preferred over others. Thus, we encounter the paradox of a slave-owning society which affirms that all men are created equal, unaware of the contradiction between its axioms and its actions. The "common sense" interpretation of the phrase at the time was that the term "men" did not include slaves and, had we all read as common sense dictated, this reading and the institution of slavery would still be with us. It was only when readers read against the grain, using the powers of interpretation that literacy has given them, that they learn how to curse the common sense reading.

We no longer require these high-order literacy skills to access the dominant cultural forms. Unlike the Protestant revolution whose success depended upon the literacy skills of its adherents, and which, as a consequence of those very skills, ran the risk of sectarian dissension, the Harris revolution only requires subjects who can watch and hear, not those that can read. It is no longer necessary to let the Trojan horse of literacy in the gates.

Harris opposes the liberal arts because they are, as the name suggests, potentially liberatory. Note I have said "potentially" liberatory. High cultural forms such as the Bible and Shakespeare have been used and continue to be used as instruments of colonization; popular cultural forms such as Disney were used in Allende's Chile to justify opposition to socialism, and continue to be used around the world to create unfettered access to markets. But learning how to read culture-and this is what the liberal arts teach-can also allow us to acquire the skills that allow us to see where we are dominated and where we can resist. Caliban can only curse-take his otherwise mute rage and give it articulate shape-because he has learned a language in which to curse.

Let me get a little more specific about these skills. As we learn how to read the passive voice, we should learn to ask who the absent agent is. I can write in the active voice ("Emma hit the ball") or in the passive ("The ball was hit by Emma.") Notice when I have shifted the sentence into the passive, I can, if I choose, delete the agent from the sentence, giving me the sentence "The ball was hit." Recall Harris's comment "We seem to be graduating more people who are great thinkers, but they know nothing about math or science or engineering or the skill sets that are needed." Notice the use of the passive voice at the end of the sentence. Use your powers of literacy to ask who Mike thinks the subject of the passive verb is. Skill sets needed for what and by whom? Is it you? Is it us? Is it business and industry? Is it the provincial government? Ask yourself if the ability to ask these questions is part of the skill set that this government desires the population to have.

I don't think that Mike Harris is turning away from the liberal arts because they are manifestly ineffective in producing employable graduates. According to Arnice Cadieux of the Council of Ontario Universities, "employment rates for those from the humanities and social sciences programs are as consistently high as across all other disciplines." Over 91 % of Ontario's class of 1996 had found work six months after graduation. After two years, it was 96.1 % (Owen Sound Sun Times 24/2/2000). A recent SSHRC study reports that, "the labour market still places more value on the social sciences and humanities than on sciences and engineering." Mike Harris is changing the emphasis because he is more interested in trained citizenry rather than an educated one. An educated citizenry is a threat to a politician who trades in such vacuities as a "common sense" revolution. An educated citizenry will see that naming something "common sense" doesn't make it so, and will also see that what's common sense for propertied middle-class within the 905 area code is not common sense for students, for the homeless, for the unemployed, or for those us who live north of Muskoka.

This anti-democratic agenda is already being implemented in the primary and secondary school curriculum. Last year, I was asked by the Council of Ontario Universities to take part in a review of the new high school curriculum that will be implemented this fall. I served on a panel made up of university and community college teachers which was charged with the task of reviewing and validating four years of English curricula. John Ibbitson, whom I cited earlier, is certainly correct when he says the new curriculum is narrowly focused on preparing students for the 21st century workplace. The curriculum content is oriented to the post-graduation destination the student has chosen. Courses for the university and college-bound have a greater theoretical orientation, and those for the workplace are focused on specific skill sets. I was deeply troubled by the way in which the teaching of English, my discipline, was being shaped by labour market requirements. The variations in the curriculum, while predicated on differences in students' goals upon graduation, in fact, serve to reinforce class distinctions and perpetuate a division of labour which will not serve the interests of any of the students in these streams, and is particularly harmful to those destined for the workplace. Students reading literature in the academic stream are offered a curriculum that has a modest historical orientation. As we move from the academic to the applied stream, history disappears. Students studying media in the academic stream are introduced to media theory, but theory is all but absent from the applied stream. More significantly, students learning to write in the college-university stream focus on using a "voice" suitable to forms studied and used in postsecondary programs. But, voice, the capacity for independent thought and expression, drops out in the applied stream, where the focus is merely on using the forms related to the workplace.

The underlying assumption is that those in the workplace do not have the same need of voice as those who will pursue postsecondary education. This assumption is false.

Students streamed toward the workplace need to have a sense of the histories that have influenced their choices. As well, they need to be acquainted with some of the theoretical frameworks which attempt to account for those histories. Moreover, they deserve an education that is as concerned with developing their voices as it is with amplifying the voices of students in the academic stream.

Every weekday morning as I head to work, I see the school bus drop off the aboriginal kids who have been flown in from remote northern communities to do high school in Thunder Bay. As the year progresses I watch the numbers dwindle; fewer and fewer seem to be getting off the bus. I suspect the drop out rate among this group of students must be enormous. I wonder what stream the next group of these students will be directed to in the fall. I know from the low population of aboriginal students at Lakehead, it won't be the university stream. And I wonder what relevance the diet of vocational training they will receive will have to their working lives back home if they choose to return there, or to the lives they will live here should they choose to stay. Surely this group, more than any other moving through the secondary system, needs a voice so that the complaints and injuries that have been ignored for so long can at least get a hearing. Harris's high school reforms will do little to help them get that voice.

Before I talk about how you might respond to this agenda, I would like to talk a little bit about how universities have responded.

First, the institutional response: the University of Toronto, one of those at the very top of the Maclean's rankings in its category, has offered a spirited defense of its arts program. A recent quarter page ad in the Globe & Mail asks the question: "You have an English Degree, now what?" and offers two answers: "(a) correct other peoples grammar; (b) run the Bank of Montreal". In the lower right had corner of the ad we see the 1965/66 student card of Tony Comper, the current Chairman and CEO of the Bank of Montreal. Lakehead University, one of those near the bottom of the Maclean ranking in its category, largely ignores the issue and, when pushed, denies that there is problem. Why the difference in response? Well, I think it has to do with what role they see their respective graduates playing within society upon graduation. The University of Toronto is a front-rank research institution turning out the next generation of leaders. People like Tony Comper go to that university hoping to acquire the abilities to become leaders in modern democratic societies. In response to Harris' inquiry to the engineers, "where would you be if you studied philosophy and Latin," his parliamentary colleague and former solicitor-general, David H. Tsubouchi said "in your cabinet" (Globe & Mail 2/2000).

Don't be fooled. Mike Harris' backroom staff, the now making their way into the new Conservative Party of Canada, are not ill-lettered golf pros down from the sticks. Maybe Mike hasn't, but they have certainly read their Plato. They know and concur with the class differences that underpin education in The Republic. Plato's ruling class was to be educated in philosophy. Rulers would need to learn how to read Homer's impious poetry. The masses they ruled, however, would merely be taught stories, "noble lies," that would give them the justice, temperance, courage and wisdom suitable to their roles. Harris knows that leaders in democratic countries will always need access to a liberal arts education. His reforms appear to threaten the elitist educational project, and to that extent generate spirited defenses from universities that see themselves, or would like to see themselves, as educating the next generation of rulers. But, this form of education, at these prestigious schools, is not under a really serious attack.

The real target are the other than front-rank universities and colleges, the institutions that aren't expected to turn out a new ruling class but are expected to turn out the next generation of efficient and effective producers and consumers. I don't think that the provincial government doubts for a moment the power of a liberal arts education. Funding may be withdrawn, but never to such an extent that it will jeopardize the educations of the Tony Compers, the John Torys and the Tom Longs (to say nothing of the Conrad Blacks). What the Harris government has come to question is the necessity of providing this sort of education to the many rather than the few. It is also questioning a fundamental axiom of democracy: is it really necessary that all citizens to be equipped with the intellectual abilities necessary to govern themselves? Contrary to what he has said, Harris' society does require great thinkers, just not a lot of them. And the ones it does require will be drawn away to the centre as the kind of education they require will no longer be readily available in the margins.

This, however, doesn't explain why the second-rank schools haven't been quick to challenge the government's policy directions. Frankly, I don't think they see that there is much to gained by resisting. If lower-ranked universities and colleges are looking for infusions of new funding-and all of them are-then they will, if they want to survive and grow, align themselves with the government's priorities. If the provincial government keeps its word about not decreasing funding to liberal arts programs, this probably won't require these schools to abandon their liberal arts programs. But it will likely encourage them to largely ignore them; or, where they choose not to ignore them, to rework them so that they are in step with government's plan to reshape postsecondary education to meet the needs of the 21st century workplace. Increasingly, those of us in the humanities and social sciences are being asked to rethink what we do so that what we teach will have greater relevance to "the skill sets that are needed." Those of us teaching English are beginning to feel the pressure to rework our curricula to emphasize required skill sets. Inevitably, these skill sets turn out to be value-neutral bundles of generalizable academic abilities: technical writing skills, interpersonal skills, oral communication skills, problem-solving skills, computing skills. I have nothing against students acquiring marketable skills. As the study after study shows, the skills students take away from my classes make them quite marketable, but I am dead set against these narrowly defined generic skills taking the place of the learning that has traditionally gone on in the humanities and social sciences.

In the next few years, you will see this technical and utilitarian curriculum coming at you in many forms. Some schools use the idea of core programs in first year to bring about the retooling of the liberal arts: the first year arts elective gives way to College-University 100-Learning the Secrets of Being a Successful Student. Some professional programs become enamored of ability-based learning, and incorporate into their core programs a requirement that students master certain abilities: typically, writing skills, interpersonal skills, oral communication skills, problem-solving skills, computing skills, and something called critical thinking skills-though this potted mess of half-baked psychology generally bears little resemblance to what most of us in the humanities and social sciences know as critical thinking. As those promoting these programs assume at the outset that the only legitimate role of the liberal arts is to inculcate these technical abilities, they also assume, once the abilities are sewn into the fabric of the curriculum, that liberal arts requirements can be jettisoned. Writing-across-the-curriculum is another form in which this winnowing of the curriculum can take place. Despite ten years of work to establish a writing-across-the-curriculum program at Lakehead University, I now find myself having second thoughts. I thought it crucial that all students leaving this university have the writing abilities that they will need for the lives beyond Lakehead. Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy-essentially students being expected to write and being supported in their development as writers throughout an undergraduate program-holds considerable promise for helping students to become competent writers. However, its institutionalization can often, and frequently does, come at the expense of the liberal arts. None of these programs need be as impoverished as I have described them here. Indeed, at certain schools initiatives bearing these names have been implemented with considerable success. But where these programs are offered in lieu of a liberal arts program, there is great cause for concern.

You would think that, given the threat, humanities and social science professors would be mustering a defense. Some have, but most haven't, and I think there is a reason for this. The liberal arts are deeply divided from within. These divisions circulate publicly in the form of stereotypes: the tweedy Shakespearean scholar anxiously trying to a preserve a culture in eclipse, and the hip radical insurgent of varying Marxist, Feminist, Queer and post-colonial stripes awaiting the new dawn. The one is depicted as retreating to an ivory tower in a doomed and rearguard effort to preserve the waning privilege of a liberal humanist, anglocentric, and androcentric culture; the other is portrayed as running to the ramparts to promote a counter-hegemonic rebellion that would unmask the play of power within the tradition and reveal the oppositions and conflicts that this false consensus has tried to gloss over with its sherry-sipping eloquence. There is also, within most universities, a huge part-time underclass charged with teaching skill courses such a introductory composition or large introductory humanities and social science sections. Members of this camp often stand to the side of the fray, warily charting the prevailing currents within the university as they try to land their next sessional or part-time teaching contract.

These are of course, fictions, but these fictions capture something of the dilemma within. If the divided parties under attack can't agree on what versions of their disciplines are worth defending-the old liberal humanist discipline, the new politicized discipline, the old and new discipline as handmaiden to the labour market-they will inevitably flounder in its defense.

This struggle within has frequently paralyzed us and left us vulnerable to attack from without. And the opposition both within the universities and beyond has been adept at exploiting our internal divisions. Thus, those in the media seeking to undermine the humanities can be founding adopting the rhetoric of the counter-hegemonic side of the debate while simultaneously lampooning its excesses. Every year at the Congress, a politically edgy paper is singled out for ridicule: this year it was the lesbian Anne of Green Gables, and just as predictably a traditional scholarly piece is displayed and mocked for its ponderous irrelevance. Administrators within the universities chip away at the project of liberal education using whatever arguments either side generates to undermine the credibility of the fractious whole. On any given day we are too traditional and too radical. We are deemed far too resistant to change ("there's not enough diversity in the curriculum; too much Old English, too much Chaucer") and far too changeable ("a course on Madonna, a course on Oprah, you've got to be kidding!").

It is crucial that those of us studying in the humanities not be used as pawns in this divisive game. We must communicate clearly to each other our mutual commitment to free intellectual inquiry and teaching, and we must communicate to those beyond our departments that a lack of consensus within is both an inevitable and a desirable result of committed research and teaching. We must also, whenever there is an opportunity come forward and speak about what we do and explain as well as we can why this is necessary work.

Finally, I want to suggest some things that you might do:

Be aware of your context, and how that context influences the struggle over the humanities. At elite schools there may not be a struggle over the humanities, but there will be challenges to liberal education, nonetheless. Applied programs at all schools are under considerable pressure to "professionalize" their curricula, to devote more and more instructional time to subjects deemed to be essential to current labour market demands. When course changes are proposed, find out what's being displaced.

Look closely at the way in which articulation agreements between community college

and universities are established. The government has signaled that it wants to promote movement of students between the systems. If the registrar gives credit for college study within a university program, what university subjects are displaced from the degree? Has recognition of the college contribution come disproportionately at the expense of the liberal arts? Is "transferability" between and among college and university courses being encouraged in the absence of serious attention to qualitative and quantitative differences in curriculum?

Look closely at technologically-mediated forms of instruction. Are these being implemented in a way that undermines the educational goals of a liberal arts curriculum? Sometimes technology provides much needed access for populations that have traditionally been deprived of real learning opportunities; sometimes it is the means by which this deprivation is justified. Learn to tell the difference.

Look closely at common first-year projects or core curriculum proposals, and be very suspicious of cheerful boosterism. Are these initiatives designed to improve students' educational experiences, or are they simply a strategy for undermining the humanities and social sciences. The same caution applies to ability-based learning writing across the curriculum initiatives. Both of these if properly implemented can be of enormous benefit to students, and both can be used in ways that are detrimental to student learning. Learn to tell the difference.

Finally, be very, very vocal in whatever forums you have the opportunity to speak. It has been my experience that student voices are frequently decisive in postsecondary debates.

Please consider these things that I have suggested. Don't get depressed. Get informed and get organized. If you find you need a diversion, go have a look at West Edmonton mall. Buy yourself something nice. Say "hi" to the dolphins.

Kim Fedderson is a former college teacher and administrator. He is currently Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. This article is a slightly revised version of a keynote address presented to the Canadian Federation of Students Roundtable in June 2001. Though most of the references to the Ontario provincial government involve ex-Premier Mike Harris and his Progressive Conservative Party, it is worth noting that the trends here identified have not been substantially altered in the new Liberal government of Premier Dalton McGuinty. In fact, with respect to the teaching of the humanities and social sciences in the colleges (commonly called General Education), a process is in place to further reduce, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the role of the liberal arts in college education. Ed.

Kim Fedderson, Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Fedderson can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright ©
2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology