April 23rd, 2024

Liberal arts education and political belief: are they separate?

By Steffanie Costigan - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on November 15, 2023.

Many ideas, debates and discussions continue to be welcomed in post-secondary institutions across Canada.

Freedom of speech has been a popular subject in educational communities since a controversial speaker, Frances Widdowson, visited the University of Lethbridge.

Shaylene Wall, an instructor in the arts and sciences department at Lethbridge College, shared her views on the misinterpretation between liberal arts education and politics.

“I think that there’s been a lot of confusion regarding this idea that, a liberal arts institution, like the university, and where I teach here at the college is somehow the liberal arts name, or title is synonymous with the Liberal Party’s value systems. And in actuality that’s not the case,” said Wall.

In 2019, direction came from Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education for all post-secondary institutions to commit to freedom of expression through incorporating key principles and resolutions.

Lethbridge College created a freedom of expression statement following this direction.

Alberta Post-Secondary Network’s executive director Bill Werry voiced his thoughts on the importance of freedom of expression in post-secondary education institutions.

“The intent of that is to ensure that people have an opportunity to debate and learn how to think through issues, as opposed to just be handed a specific way of thinking about any given issue. I really think that post-secondary education is about free expression of different points of view,” said Werry.

Wall said the history of liberal arts in education began in the Industrial Revolution and education originally had no room for politics.

“The origins of education have never been about politics, and just being synonymous with that idea of politics. Unfortunately, politics (filtered) its way into many things now. It’s hard to make that separation. I think there’s just been a lot of confusion regarding that.”

She shared some of the issues that sometimes arise in debate.

“What happens is, you have cherry-picking of science going on and cherry-picking information. (Then you have someone) saying, ‘well, this is supported in this way.’ It’s not necessarily the case. It’s just that it may look that way,” Wall voiced.

Recently Widdowson returned to Lethbridge on Oct. 16th, holding an open debate at the main branch of the public library downtown on the topic of “woke-ism threatening academic freedom.”

At the debate, a current University of Lethbridge student, Johan Pickle, voiced his concern about political division in schools.

“Certain instructors are requiring agreement to get an A. I think the message (shows) an emphasis on group identity, (it’s) demoralizing,” said Pickle.

Wall says she does not believe a student’s political opinions affect their grades; instead she says the class rubric reigns supreme.

“That shouldn’t be the case. I mean, I can’t speak for every individual and how they grade, of course, but it shouldn’t be based upon that. That’s one of the reasons why we as instructors are in education. We use grading rubrics, or we have grading sheets of some sort. And we have outcomes that we are to meet, or in essence, the student is to meet in the case of an assignment,” said Wall.

When asked, Werry agreed with Wall stating “I don’t think that a person’s political beliefs influence their education in the sense of grades or anything like that,” said Werry.

Wall expressed if Widdowson’s situation had happened at Lethbridge College she feels that, things would have looked very different.

“I would like to think that the college in some ways would have handled it in a different way. I think one of the mistakes that the university made was just, I think they came across as very indecisive with their decision. And so there was a lot of confusion within I think the community, but also the institution itself.”

Werry said he believes the U of L handled the situation in the manner they did because of a possible safety concern.

“When that matter was raised, the administration of the institution decided that there was a potential risk attached to that event. And that was the decision they made, they felt there was a potential risk to students and others, by how polarized that particular issue was and they made that decision in the interest of safety.”

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