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In my opinion

Now is the time to rethink undergraduate education in the liberal arts

We need to re-establish ourselves as the place where leaders are prepared for whatever possibilities the future presents. Here’s how.


If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is this: prepare all you want, but you can’t control uncertainty or wrangle the unknown.

Nor will looking at tomorrow through today’s lens lend any clarity to a future shaped by artificial intelligence, distracted by never-ending flows of content, and increasingly divided into echo chambers of belief.

While our 20th-century models of education celebrated specialization, it is becoming clear that no one profession or technology or set of skills is capable of navigating the inscrutable way ahead.

Instead, I believe the 21st century belongs to the thinkers: the agile, inquisitive, empathetic, and counterintuitive collaborators who embrace a diversity of knowledge. These are tomorrow’s changemakers and entrepreneurs, who both ask, “What if?” and answer, “Here’s how.”

So where will we find these minds? Primarily, in undergraduate liberal arts institutions across this country: the place where ideas are our lifeblood and critical and creative thinking our consequence.

Yet many postsecondary liberal arts institutions across Canada are struggling to attract students, the cost of not always having kept pace with our rapidly changing world, of remaining too sequestered in silos of specialties, and of not embracing innovation and new technology as quickly or as deeply as the wider world.

It is no longer enough to simply take back the narrative — to persuade an indifferent audience of our relevance. It is no longer enough to adhere to the traditional model that has served us so well in the past. Instead, I believe it is time for the liberal arts and sciences to re-imagine itself — to rethink how we teach and how our students learn; to deconstruct and reconstruct ourselves as collaborators, rather than specialists; and to embrace our purpose through a new prism: as innovators of ideas.

Towards an innovation-driven model for undergraduate universities — If innovation is defined as introducing new ideas, then we need to compassionately design a culture that fuels what has been termed “collisions of opportunity that generate these ideas in the first place. We need to innovate ourselves, what we do, and how we do it.

Multi-thinking, multi-dimensional, collaborative — Academic specialization was designed to facilitate deep, highly focused research. Yet, complex real-world questions demand broad thinking, drawing on multiple perspectives. This is the time to take inspiration from the original intent of a liberal arts education, which celebrated the convergence of disciplines to create the enlightened individual. We need to encourage — and reward — a constant and multi-directional flow and integration of ideas across disciplines and programs, as students, faculty, and thought leaders engage as partners in discovery.

Embracing idea-testing and boundary-pushing — Knowing which questions to ask, and how, is probably the most important skill we can impart to our students. An innovation-driven culture embraces exploration as its purpose, empowering students and faculty alike with the resources and institutional support to question, take risks, fail, and try again — without penalty. In the process, we build and deliver what today’s world needs: resilient, fearless, original thinkers.

Creating the spaces to nurture the innovation mindset — The relevance — indeed the very future — of liberal arts hinges on our transitioning ideas into solutions that build better communities, stronger societies, and more equitable economies. Having spaces in which to encourage this transition is key: think multimedia development labs; spaces to engage with virtual and augmented reality; and incubators for student-led cross-disciplinary start-ups, such as social enterprises and micro-businesses. These have not traditionally been spaces and attributes common to small, rural, liberal universities. This must change. Having the right spaces matters. Embracing technology matters.

Change on this scale may seem unattainable. Universities in general are often accused — not entirely unfairly — of being slow to transform and adapt. But if the pandemic has taught us that uncertainty is not within our control, it has also taught us our response to it is.

Likewise, it has illustrated our capacity for change. It has obliged us to try things that might — that in some cases did — fail. It has forced us to be innovative, to accept that in order to move forward, we must test new approaches with no guarantee of success. And it has shown us those risks are worth it.

Now that we know we can, we must — no longer because outside forces dictate it, but because we choose to innovate, to rebuild, to develop new ways of thinking and doing.

Our next generation of problem-solvers and idea-makers will be nimble, multi-faceted communicators and innovators, ready to embrace the unknown. Our role as undergraduate liberal arts educators is to re-establish ourselves as the place where these leaders are prepared for whatever possibilities the future presents.

And if we get that right, we’ll help create the equitable, sustainable, and deeply engaged educational institutions the world craves — and deserves.

Jean-Paul Boudreau is president and vice-chancellor of Mount Allison University.

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  1. Eric Gorham / March 24, 2021 at 13:27

    At Quest University Canada, we have indeed been forward-thinking, innovative, and adaptive since our inception in 2007. We have also attracted many students to our model of education. Yet we still struggle financially. So there is still some work to be done on the financial models that liberal arts institutions are based on. Governments ought to invest, yes, but we also have to convince private enterprises that the liberal arts are keys to their successes as well. That, it turns out, is much easier said than done.

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