Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor Macquarie University, has recently been in the media several times suggesting that students need to complete a cannon of essential reading as part of their studies http://www.vc.mq.edu.au/blog/2011/03/28/essential-reading-for-students/ This goes against the trend to occupational based learning which focuses more on the particular skills needed in a particular occupation, ranging from a doctor or dentist to a mechanic or engineer.
This suggestion raises many interesting questions about the nature of learning, including what books should make up this cannon and at what point students should be encouraged to do this, but perhaps the most interesting question is why students who have chosen a particular discipline should expand their learning base beyond that of a chosen field, or why any learning should not be industry or trade specific. To look at this one needs to consider the type of learning which is involved in in reading certain literary works. Professor Schwartz sees these texts as giving “…students the opportunity to tackle the eternal dilemmas of human existence. What do we mean by fairness and justice? What are the duties of citizenship? What do we value and what can we live without?”
But what are the benefits which arise from this deeper understanding of literature, culture and philosophy and the themes they explore? Can this further education benefit society as a whole, beyond the enrichment of an individual’s life? These are the questions which bring to mind contemplation of a person’s life as a whole and the hurdles which they will come across as they progress through its various phases. Professor Schwartz argues that even at the most basic level, such learning will enhance the functions of a particular occupation http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/stories/2011/3196322.htm, but even greater than this is the potentially enhanced ability of an individual to make carefully considered and aware life decisions and to be in a position to successfully negotiate life’s twists and turns. If nothing else, increased awareness of our past and our inherent characters as human beings might alleviate some of the mental health suffering felt by so many as their lives progress through its inevitable complications.
Ultimately with all education the question at the heart of this seems to be, what are we trying to achieve? Is it simply a person who will be able to get a good paying job which is right for them, who can follow society’s rules and look after themselves, or is it a person who will think for themselves, question their role in the big picture, have a certain awareness about the historical perspective of their time and be in a position to make carefully considered life decisions. If it is the latter, then surely it is time to start picking up those books and delve into some of the great minds and ideas which have come before us.
Stephen Schwartz’s blog has a few suggestions for what might be on such a cannon of essential literature if you are interested :http://www.vc.mq.edu.au/blog/