Students critically need thinking skills

Oh, the humanities! Ontario universities need to teach basic skills to their non-science students

Choosing schools based on specific programs and the specific skills they offer could be a reality for Ontario students.
Choosing schools based on specific programs and the specific skills they offer could be a reality for Ontario students.

Patrick Baud , MA ’14

In mid-September, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Brad Duguid, sent a draft policy to the province’s colleges and universities that, if adopted, would require them to focus attention on their high-performing programs and abandon low-performing ones.

Performance would be measured through a combination of student satisfaction surveys and employment outcomes. Schools that refuse to do so, the draft says, would risk reduced government funding.

According to an article in the Globe and Mail on the leaked draft, the policy is due to be finalized this month.

This comes just ahead of the next round of the Ontario government’s funding negotiations with colleges and universities, including Queen’s, which will begin in November.

The proposed policy that would require Ontario universities to become more specialized is well-intentioned, but fails to address a more fundamental problem: that many of the programs they offer aren’t well-suited to prepare students for the job market.

The Ontario government is rightly concerned with the increasingly widespread view that the quality, and therefore the value, of university education is falling due in part to the low-performing programs offered. This view is especially prevalent about humanities and social science programs.

Even if significant rationalization of humanities and social sciences programs were to take place, it’s not clear that graduates of the remaining programs in these fields would face better job prospects. In fact, their poor prospects are mostly due to the continued weakness of Ontario’s economy, as well as broader trends, including globalization and technological advances.

These trends mean that the sorts of jobs that past generations of graduates might have been well-suited for are increasingly scarce. But these factors certainly shouldn’t be taken as an excuse for universities to educate these students without regard to their future employability.

The problem with the way that universities tend to educate these students is that the purpose of their education — generally defined as training them to be critical thinkers — isn’t consistent with how they’re taught.

Rather than teaching students to think critically, humanities and social sciences programs tend to focus on training them in their discipline with the aim, especially in third and fourth year, of preparing them for graduate school in that discipline, which is only one of many paths that students might pursue after graduation.

If universities are serious about training students to think critically, then their programs, especially in the humanities and social sciences, should actually set out to do so.

This requires these programs to do more than simply expect students to learn the skills they need to be critical thinkers through a combination of exposure and the odd comment on their papers. Given the current hands-off approach, it should be no wonder that many reach fourth year without being able to write a good paper.

The common defences against this kind of argument — that high schools, not universities, should train students to develop arguments and communicate them effectively, and that writing centres, not lectures and tutorials, are the places for students to learn these skills — simply aren’t good enough.

They certainly wouldn’t be accepted in engineering and the sciences, programs that actually teach the fundamental skills of their disciplines (calculus and statistics, for example), along with the content of the discipline itself.

Engineering and science programs don’t see skills development as peripheral to the education they offer and don’t depend on a “calculus centre” to ensure that it takes place.

Following the lead of engineering and the sciences, universities should require students in the humanities and the social sciences to take courses that train them in the fundamental skills of their disciplines. These courses, which should be taught in both first and second year, would cover topics like informal logic, research methods, analytical and persuasive writing and public speaking.

Taken seriously, these courses would offer a real opportunity to ensure that students are able to conduct research, formulate arguments and express themselves effectively. This will help them succeed not only in upper years, but also in the job market.

In addition to rewarding universities that focus on their high-performing programs, the Ontario government should also look to reward universities that require formal training in these fundamental skills.

Even if the government focuses on programs, rather than the skills that students develop while in university, it would still be in Queen’s interest to pursue this approach.

Doing so will ensure that the university experience is truly focused on training students to be critical thinkers, rather than simply training them to become graduate students. Queen’s students deserve no less.

Patrick Baud is a Master’s student in political studies.

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