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Broadening the curriculum

Toward liberal knowledge

Author - John Heywood


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At the time research in higher education was just beginning in earnest and the issue of liberal studies received some attention through several surveys of attitude and opinion of students in both technical colleges and universities.[3] One survey, the results of which will be considered here obtained information from 383 of the first 1000 diplomates, and some of their teachers in five Colleges of Advanced Technology (see Silver 1990). There is no doubt that these courses engendered controversy among some students because they took the focus away from what they had come to college to do – namely study to become a technologist. Others were very positive about the programmes, while some wanted changes in the syllabus and a better organisation of the courses. In some cases both the system of examination and the methods of teaching came in for criticism.[4] There was no evidence that the majority of diplomates wanted these programmes to be discontinued. But what did their teachers think?

It would seem from this enquiry that there was no consensus of opinion about the aims of liberal studies among teachers. Their opinions were likely to reflect the basic beliefs of the individuals concerned. Nevertheless the majority thought liberal studies were necessary but only half thought they should be compulsory. In another more substantial enquiry in one of these institutions by Lawrence Davies (1965) there were similar findings. Ninety per cent approved of the idea of liberal studies. I suspect that a caveat should have been attached to the effect that, yes they are a good idea so long as they do not effect my course or overload the programme even more than it is overloaded.

The purpose of this paper is to argue that specialisation has gone too far and that there is a need to return to the debate about liberal education and to broaden the curriculum to prepare students better for the world in which we live. It is to argue that the personal and social aims of higher education are as important as the economic.

I am not sure whether it is ironic or simply hypocritical that while many of us parents claim to want our children to be educated, the phrase ‘educate the whole person’ comes to mind, in reality we do the opposite and put great pressure on them to gain as many points in the Leaving Certificate as possible. And, if we think a ‘crammer’ institution will do a better job than school then we pay for the children to cram. We know which jobs pay the most and what qualifications are required for those jobs. As long ago as 1939 T. H. Marshall wrote that there has been a ‘transfer of individual competitiveness from the economic to the educational world, from the office and workshop to the school and university’.[5] Now a large proportion of school leavers seek a degree in higher education, and they are encouraged to enter higher education by governments in the belief that the higher the level of attainment of the population the greater will be the economic benefit to the country. But as we see, particularly in a time of recession, employers respond by grade inflation, for selection by qualification is the most useful although not necessarily the best means of selection. So, whereas in the past a Junior Certificate would do for a particular job now a Leaving Certificate is required. Similarly some employers now demand a degree for tasks that would have been done in the past by a person with a Leaving Certificate. Of increasing significance is the fact that many graduates are disappointed to find that there are no vacancies in the fields for which they have been trained. Not only do they find it emotionally difficult to seek jobs in other spheres they often find themselves rejected by employers who erroneously believe that they do not have the generic skills they need.[6] In this respect it is worth noting that the State of Illinois expects that in the next decade 41 per cent of the jobs in the state will be at the middle level.[7]

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