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Student Voices

The new century requires us to embrace the unconventional

Saving the generalist.


I wonder whether we are losing our appreciation for the liberal arts and the generalist. Why do we increasingly sell students on depth, rather than encourage them to be broad?

In a globalized, highly competitive 21st-century, the strategy of funnelling students into vocational and skill-based arenas at the postsecondary level, with limited purview, rather than encouraging them to be creative, capable learners across broad spaces could be of benefit to some, but also could be harmful or misleading to many, ultimately affecting their contributions, learning, and career. While I would never espouse one path over another, nonetheless, in our bid to emphasize STEM disciplines, skills, and vocational or technical knowledge, let us not invalidate other paths – such as in the humanities – of breadth. So, I’d like to share my story.

Every week, I get on at least a dozen trains. I travel between three cities to complete full-time school, work, and run a national non-profit organization. I doubt this is an enviable lifestyle for many, though it has taught and it does teach me a lot about breadth vs. depth, community engagement, and being globally minded.

My university years have been different from many students’: my first year was in England, my next two in London, Ontario, with summers in other countries, and my fourth split between a work-term at a Fortune 50 company and various cities for school, work, and community.

At university, the liberal arts were a natural choice. This path allowed me to enrol in a variety of courses, take an interdisciplinary degree, and have the freedom to tackle many pursuits. In work, I identified opportunities that would both build on my learning and provide a diverse array of skills. And in my community, I sought to engage with numerous institutions with a variety of missions, in public and mental health, education, and entrepreneurship, and in media, to integrate student voices into The Globe and Mail. The common intellectual thread was creating and demonstrating the opportunity for young people to act as a constituency and as stakeholders, innovators and operators, within institutions and in their communities.

To pay for my travel, I worked, saved money, and fundraised. This helped me study abroad, allowed me to participate in delegations and conferences and engage with people, and institutions from around the world. With other young Canadians, I co-founded a non-profit, Young Diplomats of Canada, to enable other young people to represent our country abroad. It is hard to overestimate just how much one’s perspective shifts due to this kind of global education and engagement. These streams of a broad global education, business and community work, and developing an intellectual thread have all prepared me for the challenges ahead.

Major problems for young graduates include youth unemployment, new skill demands, and a job market where some future jobs don’t even exist yet. Many complex issues – such as irreversible climate change, skyrocketing healthcare costs, demographic shift, political instability, and scarcity of resources – require collaboration across sectors and creative and multidisciplinary solutions from individuals who can grasp an array of sectors, fields, institutions, and skills to solve them. Industry and government need high-quality talented individuals who can be both critical and creative and solve problems known and still unknown.

The world is getting more complex, and the issues we face require complex, creative, and collaborative solutions. Saving the generalist and embracing the unconventional might help in solving those problems and in preparing today’s students, not just for the next five years but for 20 or 30 years from now, and for their whole lives.

This is the tenth and final installment of our series Student Voices written by the 10 Canadian postsecondary students who were named 2014 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada.

Jaxson Khan
A 3M National Student Fellow, Jaxson Khan is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Huron University College of Western University, studying global development and volunteering as a program coordinator with the Public Humanities initiative.
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