The Role of the Humanities in Undergraduate Education

UC Principal Donald Ainslie
Donald Ainslie
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In the years since the financial crisis of 2008, universities across North America have struggled through a number of challenges – decreasing government funding during a period of austerity, the rise of instructional technologies such as Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that claim to replace bricks-and-mortar institutions, and increasing demands that undergraduates be trained for jobs rather than educated more broadly.  The humanities – the study of literature, languages, history, philosophy, and culture – have been particularly hard hit by these challenges.  Google “crisis in the humanities” and you will get 17 million hits, taking you to one article after another either decrying the phenomenon or questioning its legitimacy.

The University of Toronto is in a unique position when confronting the current crisis due to its tradition of excellence in the humanities.  Consider that, in international rankings, U of T routinely places as the best in Canada and around twentieth in the world.  But its humanities departments – English, History, Philosophy, and the languages – tend to do better than the university overall, typically ranking just below the top 10.  What explains U of T’s special strength in these fields?

The answer lies in our distinctive history.  The University of Toronto was founded in 1827 as King’s College, an Anglican institution of higher learning.  But by the 1840s, when the first professors had been hired and students enrolled, Canada West (as it then was) had started to reject the idea that a public university should be controlled by a religious minority.  King’s was closed with the non-sectarian University College opening in its place in 1853.

The religious communities were at the same time creating their own universities:  Victoria for the Methodists; St. Michael’s for the Catholics; and Trinity for the Anglicans.  By the end of the nineteenth century, when these institutions faced financial challenges, they federated with the University of Toronto.

The core compromise that made federation possible involved the humanities.  Because of the importance of these disciplines to how one lives – because of the central place they give to the study and critique of values – the religious institutions retained their own humanities departments, in contradistinction to the University’s humanities departments based at UC:  Classics, English, Ethics, French, German, and Near Eastern Studies (interestingly, History was an exception among the humanities in not having college-based departments).

The result was a rich ecology of humanities scholarship with different focuses developing across campus.  At UC, our professors included Barker Fairley in German; William J. Alexander, A.S.P Woodhouse, and F. E. L. Priestley in English; Maurice Hutton and Gilbert Norwood in Classics; David Gauthier in Ethics; and many more.

Though the college-based humanities departments were amalgamated in 1974, their legacy lives on, especially in U of T’s collective understanding that the humanities matter because of their impact on students’ lives and on our common endeavour to understand the world around us.  Of course, one must start with an accurate account of what that world is:  this is the task of the sciences, both natural and social.  But the harder question is how we fit into the world and what it ultimately means.  The study and critique of values remain at the centre of humanistic scholarship.

This is not to say that U of T is immune to the challenges that the humanities have been facing at other universities.  In Ontario, university applications have gone up by 8% since 2010, but those designating the humanities as their main area of study have decreased by over 9%.  And as U of T has evolved into Canada’s international university, with more than a quarter of our undergrads arriving from abroad, usually as non-native speakers of English, enrollments in humanities courses have started to decline.

It was in this context that U of T’s Provost and Vice-President, Cheryl Regehr, recently asked me to serve as her Advisor on Undergraduate Humanities Education.  With our President, Meric Gertler, having identified the reinvention of undergraduate education as one of the three priorities for his term, it is an opportune moment to rethink undergraduate study in the humanities in particular.

In a period where students and their parents often take an instrumental approach to their programs of study, how do we encourage them to see their time at U of T as a chance to prepare not simply for work but for life?  How do we help them understand that the skills they acquire in humanities courses – critical reading, persuasive writing, reflective reasoning – are powerful tools no matter where their career path leads?

Humanities professors must also be engaged in these challenges.  How do we harness for our pedagogy the new scholarship in what is called ‘digital humanities’?  With an increasingly international student body, how do we ensure that our scholarship engages with the whole world, and not merely the western tradition?

These are not easy questions, and I have been consulting broadly across the university to begin to answer them.  I encourage UC alumni to join the conversation and to share your opinions on how your studies made a difference in your life – or how you wished they had prepared you differently.  Please email me at with your thoughts.  I look forward to learning from you.

Professor Donald C. Ainslie
Principal, University College