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.