Monday, October 17, 2011

Don't turn Universities into job training

National Post, 18/08/2011, By Patrick Keeney,

When Woodrow Wilson resigned as president of Princeton University to run for president of the United States, he was asked why he would choose to move to Washington and leave behind the comforts of university life. "I couldn't stand the politics," was his reply.

University politics can be fractious and unforgiving, especially when academics debate the fundamental questions: What, exactly, is the mandate of the university? And what is a university education for?

Canadian universities have undergone radical alterations in their mandate. As recently as 1983, the distinguished American scholar Edward Shils could confidently assert that the distinctive mission of the university "is the methodical discovery and the teaching of truths about serious and important matters." But in the current age of micromanagement, mission statements and diversity offices, this description seems a quaint echo from a bygone age.

Democratic societies have always entertained competing conceptions of the university. But at the heart of our current dilemma lies a straightforward conflict between a view of the university as an institution designed for the preservation and dissemination of scholarship and education, with that of a training school, which focuses on providing students with skills relevant to employment and the economy.

Simply put, is the university an educational institution or a vocational one?

As a society, we need to be vigilant in defending the ideal of a liberal education. This ideal goes back to the Greeks, who believed that a liberal education is the most appropriate kind of preparation for freeborn citizens. The basic premise holds that education consists of developing the mind through humane learning, and that all educational activities should be subordinate to that end. Various writers have defined this ideal, but Leo Strauss pithily captures its essence: "Reading with care what the best minds had to say about the most important questions."

There will always be debates about what those questions are, and who is best positioned to speak on them. But the overarching aim of a liberal education was never in doubt: free citizens need to develop their minds - as opposed to simply acquiring marketable skills - to achieve lives that are rich, meaningful and rewarding.

It is this ideal that, in one form or another, has remained a constant in the imagination of the West, and was, until recent years, the animating spirit in our universities. And most professors still acknowledge this ideal - or some version of it - as a crucial part of the university's mission. Yet this ideal is being eroded and undermined, if not deliberately bulldozed, in the name of a reckless, unrelenting economic pragmatism.

What is undeniable is that there has been a widespread drift away from the arts and humanities and toward professional, applied and vocational study. The notion of studying anything for its intrinsic value, for the sheer joy and pleasure that such study brings, is rapidly giving way to a new sort of industrial utilitarianism, where the only learning that is considered worthwhile is that which is directly linked to a job or a career. We seem to have forgotten Aristotle's observation that humans are, by their very nature, creatures who desire to know.

There are some university programs that undeniably lead students directly to specific career opportunities, particularly in the hard sciences (a student studying to become the proverbial rocket scientist isn't ignoring the value of a liberal education, after all - he's taking the educational steps necessary to accomplish a laudable professional goal). But it is easy to overlook the fact that liberal education has a practical side. True, it does not seek to train people for specific jobs, but it does aim to provide students with a good, general intelligence, which individuals can then apply to any career they see fit to pursue.

As Matthew Barrett, former CEO of the Bank of Montreal, once remarked: "Anyone who can detect themes in Chaucer is certainly capable of learning double-entry bookkeeping in my bank."

The ever-expanding list of courses in business and technology, along with the inclusion of work experience as a part of university study, breaks down any distinction between a university that educates and a vocational college that focuses on trades and skills. The reason that administrators value vocational courses and programming is straightforward: They attract students and bring in more money. Universities can charge higher fees if the student thinks there is a direct and immediate economic payoff. And business groups are, by and large, more likely to provide donations, grants, scholarships, bursaries and so on if the universities are offering courses which they believe will ultimately benefit the business world.

Yet to buy into this "bottomline" view of the university is to deny that universities exists for any reason other than job preparation; it is to allow economic considerations to set our educational priorities; it is to repudiate any vision of education beyond a pragmatic, hard-headed, business model; it is to squander the gravitas that a university education once bestowed upon its graduates; and it is to ignore that part of the human spirit, which desires to know simply for the sake of knowing.

Governments in various jurisdictions have been successful in persuading people to accept the view that universities should become more like vocational schools. It is time to ask ourselves if this hollowing out of a crucial institution and enfeebling of a cherished educational ideal is worth the price.

- Patrick Keeney is the editor of Prospero, a Journal of New Thinking in Philosophy for Education. He is currently an adjunct professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University.

No comments: