Arts professor, invited to Beirut, argues for the value of a liberal arts education

The former dean of York’s Faculty of Arts, University Professor George Fallis, also a professor of economics and social science, was honoured with an invitation to deliver an address on May 2 at a symposium at the American University of Beirut on the occasion of the inauguration of its new president, Peter F. Dorman. The conference addressed the issues of academic freedom and innovation in the Middle East.

Right: George Fallis

Three individuals were invited to speak: one speaker from the Middle East, one from Europe and one from the Anglo-American tradition. The latter was Fallis, who believes that most of the forces at play in the Anglo-American context are also shaping higher education in the Middle East. His paper was titled “Liberal Arts Education in the 21st Century: Anachronism or Vanguard?”

In his lecture, Fallis asked what the purposes are of an undergraduate education. He then repositioned the question, asking, what the mission of the university is in the 21st century. He acknowledged that most universities have many missions. For this reason, to characterize modern universities, he borrowed the term “multiversities”, coined by distinguished American scholar Clark Kerr.

Fallis identified four ideas, or archetypes, of the university which have tended to emerge over the last few centuries. He stated that the first idea is as a place of undergraduate liberal education; the second, as a place of advanced research and graduate education; the third idea is of the university explicitly serving society, as a place for accessible undergraduate education and applied research; and finally, the fourth idea is the university as a place of professional schools. Coinciding with this transformation has been the transition from elite to mass higher education, said Fallis.

Fallis underscored the growing tension that has developed as a result of these new multiple roles for the university. “Can a liberal arts undergraduate education flourish in the multiversity? Or will it wither with the growing emphasis on research and the growing prestige of graduate and professional education?” he asked. “In this competitive knowledge-based economy, most countries believe their economic prosperity will depend upon research and innovation and upon having a highly skilled labour force. The university is now crucial to economic prosperity.” Fallis argued that education has become increasingly viewed as an endeavour to increase human capital and that research has become associated with the creation of intellectual property which can be commercialized.

“This implies that the motivation for attending university is to increase future income. No one denies this motivation is important but, in this discourse, other motivations do not fit,” said Fallis. "There is no place for knowledge for its own sake, no intrinsic reason to read the humanities, no place for education for citizenship.”

Society loses something crucially important in this mission shift of the university from a place that provides a broad, liberal education to one that trains workers with the specialized skills deemed requisite for employment, said Fallis. He believes that universities exist in a political environment and have an obligation to contribute to political life.

“We need still another idea of the university: the university as an institution of democracy,” stated Fallis, who clarified that he was not referring to, nor advocating, democratic governance of the university, nor the abolition of elite academic standards. He contended that universities should be included among other fundamental, democratic institutions such as a constitution, the rule of law and an impartial judiciary. In this environment of academic freedom, Fallis asserted, education would be accessible to all, professors would be public intellectuals and social critics, and an undergraduate education would prepare students to be citizens.

This citizenship, Fallis said, would be characterized by the development of capacities for criticism and rational argument, cosmopolitanism – global citizenship – and the ability to communicate ideas to a general audience. “For example, after writing an academic essay on Keynes’ macroeconomic theories, or government structures of the late Ottoman Empire, or the physics of semi-conductors, the student should be asked to write an 800-word newspaper article on the same topic,” he said.

Why is this important? “It prepares students for citizenship and engagement in the public world,” said Fallis.

Each of these themes is explored in his book Multiversities, Ideas and Democracy (University of Toronto Press, 2007).

The other two inaugural lectures were delivered by Ali Fakhro, former minister of health and minister of education, Bahrain, and Professor Christopher Davidson, Institute for Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies at Durham University, England. Fakhro’s lecture was titled “What Development and What Education in the Arab World?” and Davidson presented “Higher Education in the Gulf States: Challenges and Trends”.

Submitted to YFile by David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Arts