The well educated student

Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University and author of a recent very stimulating post on this blog, has asked whether there should be ‘a “canon of classics” we should expect our students to be familiar with, ranging from fiction to works of science and philosophy’. He has suggested some possible titles that might form part of such a canon, and as you would expect this prompted a fairly lively discussion.

In fact, the question could also be framed more widely: what level of knowledge should we expect students to have beyond the specifics of whatever it is they are studying? In addition to being literate, should students also be numerate, should they have a basic grasp of the major principles and insights of science and engineering, should they be able to display a good knowledge of political and philosophical debates, should they have a good understanding of the major cultures and religions, should they have an appreciation of the great works of art and of music?

Some of this is about how our young people are educated at school, and to what extent they are encouraged there to expand their knowledge and understanding. It is also about how we see citizenship in modern society, and what we expect people to know about. But it is also important not to see education as being solely about acquiring a museum of knowledge and the arts, but rather to develop also a sense of engagement with new trends and developments in society and culture. General knowledge needs to be forward looking as well as historical in inclination.

But chiefly all this is about ensuring that we do not encourage young people to specialise too early in life and to lose sight of the many elements of knowledge and culture that allow us to maintain a civilised and tolerant society. That is the challenge.

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21 Comments on “The well educated student”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Oh for heavens sake, who nowadays would get the ‘my little sparrow’ reference from Catullus. Or ‘eating the roses’. And the strength of Seneca, there is no point even trying to explain. While philosophy might as well not exist for it requires profound and deep reading which normally needs guidance.
    But if it was deemed crucial. I might suggest that for each number within the total there be a choice of two from -say- five works. An instance might be Tolstoy. Why ‘War and Peace’ and not ‘Anna Karenina’. While ‘The Kingdom of God Is Within You’ would nudge you in a different direction. And why the Iliad and not the Odyssey. Why Plato and not Aristotle. Put simply, it’s not all that difficult to design a reading list that instead of opening minds closes them in a right-wing/left-wing vice. Look to what’s happening with the State run high schools in the US.

  2. Rachel Says:

    “In addition to being literate, should students also be numerate”?
    I’m afraid I am still clinging to the crazy notion that literacy and numeracy are generally supposed to be attained during compulsory education, and that higher education is supposed to be about something a bit, well, higher. I know, I know, reality etc . . .

  3. anna notaro Says:

    *the question could also be framed more widely: what level of knowledge should we expect students to have beyond the specifics of whatever it is they are studying?*
    I think that the question *needs* to be framed more widely, essential reading lists might in fact be useful for some specific learning outcomes and for some modules, however the whole debate about the canon (not surprisingly a centuries old one since it is intertwined with issues of cultural and national identity) is to my mind increasingly anachronistic and should be superseded by an understanding of the impact that digital technologies have already had(and will) on the production and dissemination of ‘knowledge’ (needless to say universities have a crucial role to play in the process).
    The concept of the western (literary)canon is strongly connected to the *book* (as a medium), so our culture has always had the book or a certain *bookness*, often conflating the medium with the text that it conveys, at its core, given such premises it is easy to predict that the dramatic changes that the book and the text are undergoing (the increasing proliferation of electronic books and hypertexts) are bound to affect the same idea of the *canon* or any remnant of it we might still have. This does not mean that past (literary)works are put aside and forgotten, students will still be seduced by ‘old ideas’, for them such ideas are new, each generation appropriates and refashions the past…importantly, there will still be a role to play for educators in guiding and contributing to the students’ development of their own critical and self-reflective practice in order to ‘surf’ through the sea of the canon to make intelligent and indeoendent choices.
    For those interested in some meaningful exercise in intellectual foresight this might be a good read: Kevin Kelly ‘What Books Will Become’ http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2011/04/what_books_will.php

  4. Al Says:

    Perhaps, it would be better said that students should be better able to digest our deeper writings?
    Or something like that…
    I remember having to read Richard III (?) for the leaving and, then being told the themes within it, and then being asked to write an answer to a question about an exam.
    I did what was expected of me….

  5. Ian Johnson Says:

    Could the suggestion that students should be familiar with a ‘canon of classics’ perhaps be a superficial representation of the concept of mastering the knowledge and skills that are necessary to appreciate them – or am I giving too much credit to someone who stopped teaching a long time ago?

    • anna notaro Says:

      *Could the suggestion that students should be familiar with a ‘canon of classics’ perhaps be a superficial representation of the concept of mastering the knowledge and skills that are necessary to appreciate them*
      I would remove *perhaps* from the above Ian..

  6. Jilly Says:

    I wonder if what Professor Schwartz is trying to articulate here is a desire that students should have a good general knowledge of the world around them? And I don’t mean a pub quiz kind of general knowledge, but instead an interconnected understanding of the culture, history and society of the world they’ve been born into. So they’d have some sense of basic historical events, for example, but also of the cultural forms, music, architecture, development of scientific thought etc of different periods of history as well. The great benefit of having this knowledge BEFORE college (to follow Rachel’s comment above) is that it provides a platform on which to build more detailed knowledge, but also on which to make connections across disciplines and narrow concerns. The ability to make connections across apparently disparate events or moments is crucial to developing critical thought.

    This would answer the point which I think Vincent was making about variety and different perspectives – this kind of general knowledge would not in fact come from some ‘master list’ with all the biases and exclusions inherent to that. And obviously, each student’s precise areas of knowledge and understanding would vary, but as a whole would amount to a serious base from which they could work, especially in seminars and discussions.

    One of the single most alarming aspects of teaching at third level over the last decade or more has been the tangible drop in what we might call sophisticated general knowledge among students. It makes it genuinely difficult to find a ‘way in’ to more complex knowledge. At university, we’re supposed to be training students to question and test received notions and ideas – this is pretty difficult if they don’t know what those received notions and ideas are in the first place.

    • Al Says:

      Well made point.
      I don’t think that we can be critical enough about the Leaving Cert. It can be played with, reformed or replaced, but the main danger with it is its “quality system”…

  7. Aidan Says:

    It depends what you are trying to achieve really. I read up to 100 books per year but I am only now reading a James Joyce book for the first time (“Dubliners”) and I have never read anything by Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw. Those are three of Ireland’s most famous writers (and I am Irish) so that might make me a Philistine in some people’s eyes.
    Equally though I could ask how many books somebody has read by Colum McCann, Colm Tóibín, Glenn Patterson, Dermot Bolger, John McGahern to name but a few modern Irish writers. Are you more or less literate if you have mostly read literature of your own time?
    There are so many books published every year that it is impossible to be prescriptive. Personally I would recommend teenagers to read:
    “Independent People” by Halldór Laxness
    “Le Grand Meaulnes” by Alain-Fournier
    “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley
    “Memoir” by John McGahern
    “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami
    “Black Rain” by Masuji Abuse
    “L’étranger” by Albert Camus
    “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
    “Nervous Conditions” by Tsitsi Dangarembga

    However, I would never dream of making that list prescriptive. It is elitist snobbery to try to mandate or restrict what people should read based on some notion of what being literate is.

  8. jfryar Says:

    Well, I can’t help but feel there’s a certain amount of intellectual snobbery involved in such discussions, as if the intelligence and education of an individual can only be conveyed by the number of quotes they can throw into a conversation. Or the number of irritating Latin phrases they can write ad nauseum. I refute it thus. Ouch, my toe.

    I doubt anyone on this discussion board actually studied many of the great philosophical, literary, scientific and/or artistic works while in school other than a handful of plays and poems. What people actually do in the real world is decide ‘this is a book that I’ve heard about and is considered by many to be worth reading and a classic, and therefore I shall read it to improve my knowledge’.

    Now to our more seasoned academics, I’d ask you to cast your mind back to when you were first years on a campus filled with members of the opposite sex and access to cheap booze. Did you really spend your days debating Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, possibly while sitting in a wood panelled room, wearing your smoking jackets sipping a brandy? Or did you read such works much, much later. Did your level of ‘general knowledge’ really surpass that of today’s students or are the rose tinted spectacles pinching your nose?

    And if so, how exactly have you evaluated the level of ‘general knowledge’ in the student population in order to form the comparison with days gone by?🙂

  9. Ciara Says:

    As someone about to graduate university, I think universities are having enough difficult keeping the education and training they offer up-to-date.

    Universities should worry about upgrading and improving the education they offer so as to produce graduates who are adequately prepared for the “real world” before they start worrying about teaching us anything else, I think.

    • Mary B Says:

      Ciara, is university not ‘the real world’? It seems quite real from where I’m sitting! ;o) And by the same token, what is the ‘unreal world’? It’s worth asking these questions, I think, as although we think we know what the terms mean, the implication is that the only things worth learning are utilitarian. The worst examples of ‘real’ world events are the current conflicts in places like Libya, where it appears that force is overcoming the desire for peaceful change. In a utilitarian sense we could therefore argue that people should be taught how to use force to retain power, as that’s what works in the real world. I know that’s not your point, but I do worry about the idea that the only stuff worth learning is what’s going to be useful to maintain current societal norms. I’d like to think that spending time in Higher Education would suggest to students that they might challenge those norms. Maybe I’m being overly reflective because it’s Easter time…

      • anna notaro Says:

        Ciara’s utilitarian view is by no means unique and entirely understandable especially in the context of the changes that higher education is undergoing (higher tuition fees in England etc.), besides a certain anti-intellectualist vein has always been present in the empiricist Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition, the question is how to respond to this? It is going to get increasingly difficult, even more so as far as the ‘born digital’ generation is concerned (Ciara’s younger sisters & brothers, how to make old and new content relevant and ‘up to date’ for young people? Let’s not forget that this is the first generation who can, technically, have the whole canon in their pockets, provided that they can afford a smartphone!

  10. cormac Says:

    A shop near me in Cambridge has an intriguing sign: “We don’t care if you’re from MIT and can’t read, or from Harvard and can’t add, shoplifters will be prosecuted”


  11. […] “Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University and author of a recent very stimulating post on this blog, has asked whether there should be ‘a “canon of classics” we should expect our students to be familiar with, ranging from fiction to works of science and philosophy’ …” (more) […]

  12. Mary B Says:

    It would be an interesting piece of research to do an analysis of the general knowledge questions that earlier contestants on ‘University Challenge’ got right, compared with the present teams. Would there be a decine in knowledge of ‘cultural’ matters? Personally, I have no idea as I stopped watching when Jeremy Paxman took over…

  13. kevin denny Says:

    The discussion here is about the content of courses. But there is a real issue of assessment. That is what students are interested in – fair enough- so if it not going to be on the test, forget about it. So is there any point in dragging engineering students through a course on say the History of Western Civilisation that they really don’t want to do & which some unfortunate junior colleague has to teach?
    I think a system, something like what we have in UCD, where students can take electives outside their program is more flexible in that it accomodates those who want to study widely and the nerds who want to stay focused on their subject.

    • Ciara Says:

      I gotta agree with Kevin. It’s hard for students to care much about topics that aren’t related to our courses.

      It would be totally unfair to expect students to be assessed on information they have no interest in. If I wanted to study mathematics, or geography, or history, I would have taken those degrees.

      Students are interested in college simply as a stepping stone to employment. Even at that, I feel that third level education in this country is failing us miserably. They should focus on teaching us what we want to learn first and foremost. To teach us what we should know from a cultural point of view amounts to nothing more than snobbery in my mind.

      A system where we could choose electives would be amazing, I don’t know a single student who hasn’t mentioned their desire for this system.

  14. Mary B Says:

    ‘Students are interested in college simply as a stepping stone to employment’. Hmmm…if this is the case, why don’t we cut out the middle man as it were, and just bring back work related apprenticeships, such as used to be related to UK polytechnics? The view of universities as utilitarian training bodies is certainly in line with the UK government’s perspective, as it appears to regard graduates simply as ‘cannon fodder’ for the capitalist system. There’s aactually a very interesting debate to be had on this (it’s probably clear which side I’d be on ;o) but it is in ‘the real world’ causing significant disquiet in vocational universities (ie ex-polytechnics) like my institution. Is HE a skills set for jobs – or as previous posts have discussed, is it about ‘philosophia’? Or should there once again be two types of university, one for the ‘real world’ utilitarians, and one for us ‘idealists’? (As one of the latter I have done real world jobs – the worst was on a supermarket checkout – so I believe I have some point of comparison)!

  15. Aidan Says:

    When people get to the workplace they are not expected to have really specialist skills. It would be impossible for universities to tailor their courses sufficiently unless they actually actively partner with a company (e.g. there are Pharma MBAs tailored for the needs of big pharma who colloborate with the selected unis).
    Instead companies want a quality threshold. Somoebody with a degree in engineering should be mathematically competent, it’s a given. Somebody with a degree in Computer Science should know how abiout entity relationship diagrams and database schemas. When they have the foundations companies don’t mind (re)training people with aptitude.
    What most employers are looking for too is high potential and that is where demonstrating a broad level of knowledge comes into it. An engineering graduate should know a lot about economics and business. In today’s age of mass communication they should be linguistically competent and preferably in two or three languages.
    University should be about providing a foundation, specialization should be done in graduate school. In this sense the US college system provides a great template.


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