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The future of Liberal Education

Aaron Nakama (BA '98) has encountered a few false impressions when explaining how the Bachelor of Arts in French he completed at the University of Lethbridge prepared him for a position as senior technical recruitment manager for Knowledgetech, a boutique IT Services company in Vancouver, B.C.

"Looking back, I can see how my choices evolved over the five years it took me to complete my degree," reflects Nakama. "I started in management, considered education and finally ended up with a BA in French with a heavy concentration of math, statistics and computer science courses. As a result, I am a well-rounded, global citizen, agile enough to take on new opportunities as they present themselves."

Advocating for liberal education, which emphasizes a breadth of knowledge and develops intellectual skills, comes naturally to Nakama who says that his own world view and interests don't fit neatly into any one subject. His university experience reflects these divergent and yet complimentary interests.

"The U of L enabled me to explore my interests and make connections between disciplines and with faculty, staff and other students that I rely on to this day," says Nakama, who has put his degree to use in a variety of fields ranging from broadcasting to technical recruitment since graduating from the U of L 14 years ago.

Aaron Nakama
Alumnus Aaron Nakama has seen great value in his liberal education through the variety of career fields he has explored.

Indeed, a liberal education implies breadth and depth: broad knowledge in a range of disciplines, focused by more concentrated work in one. Liberal education degrees, which aim to prepare the next generation of well-rounded and responsible citizens, are not the new kids on the block – they've been around since 400 BC and represent a classical approach to university education.

While liberal education is common at universities across North America, it has a special context at the U of L. Forty-five years ago, a forward-thinking group of citizens believed that southern Alberta merited its own university. Over the course of four days in the fall of 1967, 20 delegates and a trio of invited resource guests charted the course of the fledgling University of Lethbridge at the Waterton Conference, producing a statement of philosophy that is reflected in the academic program of the University today.

The principles of liberal education were deemed essential to what the University of Lethbridge would become and would serve as the foundation for inspired teaching, a personalized supportive learning environment, and student engagement in learning, creative activities and research.

"The University of Lethbridge is not located in a large metropolitan area as are the other two universities in this province," writes former acting president Dr. Russel J. Leskiw (LLD '93), in a document dating back to early 1967. "There is some reason to believe, therefore, that if the University of Lethbridge is to succeed, and in fact survive, it must become an institution that is unique. It must somehow be an institution that differs from the two older ones in this province."

That the University's founders were so prescient in their thinking is testament to the visionaries that were at the table. They understood the importance of setting the U of L apart and saw liberal education as central to that mission.

The U of L's statement of philosophy, originating from the Waterton Conference and printed in every University Calendar since 1967, says it best: "The University of Lethbridge endeavours to cultivate humane values; it seeks to foster intellectual growth, social development, aesthetic sensitivity, personal ethics and physical well-being; it seeks to cultivate the transcendental dimension of the scholar's personality. Its primary aims are to foster the spirit of free inquiry and the critical interpretation of ideas."

For 45 years, this statement has provided the foundation for how the U of L delivers its programming. However, since the original statement of philosophy was written there has been little discussion on the subject of liberal education or what it means for the University and its students.

"Liberal education has historically been very important to us," says Dr. Andrew Hakin, U of L provost and vice-president (academic), who is leading the charge around a re-evaluation of liberal education at the U of L. "The question we need to ask today is, does it still have that importance to us as an institution?"

Lib Ed
Today, the U of L is reimagining liberal education for tomorrow.

In the last 45 years, there have been enormous advances in technology, demographics, funding models, not to mention student habits and attitudes, to which the University has adjusted to better meet the needs of our students. Our approach to liberal education, however, has remained basically the same.

"The evolution of liberal education has been slow in the 23 years I've been here," says Hakin, who started in the chemistry department before moving into administration. "For many at the U of L, liberal education has been synonymous with the general liberal education requirement (GLER) that asks students to take courses from three different lists. Is that how we define a liberal education at the U of L?"

Hakin is arguing for a more purposeful approach and invited the U of L community to take part in the dialogue around liberal education at the second annual Fiat Lux Address, hosted earlier this fall. From the outset, Hakin made it abundantly clear he does not presume to have all the answers but he believes the time to forge a new conception of the time-honoured idea is at hand.

Hakin maintains that we need to consider the ideal of the educated person as a starting point for justifying curriculum content in liberal education.

"When we think about career paths for our graduates, the vast majority of them will likely go through multiple job transitions and changes in career direction. What I would hope, is that a liberal education will help our students to develop resilient skills that will serve them long after their formal schooling ends," says Hakin.

For him, this means reinvesting in curriculum to ensure the academic experience offered at the U of L addresses the needs of today's students. As the generators of curriculum, the challenge now lies with faculty to take a real look at the ideals of liberal education and how that translates to the teaching and learning philosophy at the U of L. The role of staff in supporting a liberal education experience will also be critical to success.

"We have some extraordinary courses and programs here," says Hakin, mentioning the U of L's liberal education classes as just one example. "Courses like these are challenging students to engage with our world, developing their analytical skills and prodding them to think through the ethical, civic and societal implications in the world around them.

These experiences need to be the norm for our students, not the exception, both within individual classes and across degree programs."

By educating students broadly so that they can move from one opportunity to another with confidence, the U of L is considering what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century and what contribution liberal education can make in addressing this question.

"As a student, I was able to direct the course of my own education," says Nakama, who credits the U of L for cultivating an openness that allowed him to chart a broad intellectual course, not just as a student but throughout his life. "My success underscores the value of liberal education for all students, regardless of their background, field of study or career aspirations."

With the next strategic planning exercise currently underway, Hakin wants liberal education to emerge as a key priority for the University resulting in a thorough examination of the subject by faculty and departments across campus.

"If we're serious about the quality of the whole of the degree we offer, then we have to try and build an experience not just around the major but around the whole degree experience. Our job is to help students gain the knowledge and skills they need to be successful, to eventually serve and to improve our society," says Hakin, harkening back to the ideals of liberal education. "These core values, held dear for the last 45 years, are still vital. However, we cannot be satisfied with simply being what we have been. I am suggesting that our greatest opportunity is to reimagine what liberal education means for the University of Lethbridge today and how that can impact our society and our world."

To continue the conversation, contact hakin@uleth.ca

This story first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of SAM. To view the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.