What’s wrong with Canadian universities – part 2: How to reform them?

On April 15, I wrote a blog post about why I think Margaret Wente is wrong to say that universities are sitting ducks for reform because the system is overly focused on professors and research. She said that professors, because of a sense of entitlement and because of tenure, think that they are above the citizenry. In my last blog post, I took this idea apart. In this post, I hope to start a conversation about how post-secondary education should be reformed. Not to reduce the system in the thoughtless way Ms. Wente advocates, but to truly position Canada’s citizens to be leaders in the Information Society that is upon us.

I want to emphasize that these are personal musings and shouldn’t be taken as a manifesto. They are born of my experiences and life path. I hope they are meaningful to you.

Education means to bring something out of someone, or to help someone reach personal potential. To do this requires sustained human contact. The professor-student relationship is exactly that – a relationship. And human relationships need time, and kindness and patience to develop. To bloom, relationships between people need space, and quiet as well as the opportunity to make mistakes and be forgiven.

Human contact doesn’t develop well in a constantly stressful and overcrowded environment. Being jostled, constantly waiting in endless line-ups, habitually not being able to enroll in the courses you want, not having a spare moment between waking and sleep. All of this leads to distraction, anxiety and a lack of focus in both faculty and students. It leads to a feeling of personal insecurity, of always feeling winded. Of running forward in breathless anxiety. But running where? There is no time to think about this and find out.

Downtime and quiet time is essential. Structure is necessary, of course. Structure provides order and predictability – stability, in a word. However, there must be a large place for unstructured living. I have heard the argument that giving students more leisure will lead to bad behaviour – drunken excess, drug-riddled partying, etc. I disagree. I think that these phenomena are the result of too much stress and busyness coupled with only tiny windows for leisurely contemplation.  Too many options, too many requirements, and heavy expectations for “productivity” are to blame for this situation. All of that structure and process infantilizes the students and transforms professors into service providers. There is no room for wisdom. No room for mastery of a craft. No room for theoretical and philosophical contemplation.

How can this situation change? Allow me to speak a little of my personal experience.

I have been a part of the McMaster community since 2001, when I was hired as the first professor in the brand new communication studies program. Because the program was new, I was able to play a huge part in building it from the ground up. Because the program was small and limited to a couple of hallways in Togo Salmon Hall, I got to know all of the students, and had a role to play in building our faculty team. I watched as our program grew and matured and developed around me. I watched our first cohorts of students mature and we changed the program to match their experiences. I kept live connections with our alumni through the new social media available to me: Facebook, Twitter and, of course, through my website. It all felt very familiar and familial – and continues to feel like that today. Our communications program merged with McMaster’s multimedia program in 2005 to form a new department. This year, our department had the largest number of undergraduate majors in the faculty of humanities. I am convinced that the smallness of our numbers and the intimacy of our space contributed to the special sense of community that we enjoy. It has been a whirlwind journey through almost ten years of growth and building. I have loved every minute (even the tough, low ones).

What did I learn from this unique set of professional circumstances?

I learned that a university education is born of the balanced interaction of five things:

  • Learning and mastering practical, professional skills. If you don’t know how to make things, it will be very hard for you to identify the good in things. There is a limit to armchair criticism.
  • Gaining an understanding of what those skills can do in the broader context of society, ethics, culture, economics, politics and, yes, perhaps even faith. All skills have value and have impact on the country. Gaining the theoretical frameworks to understand how your profession can have impact on your country is fundamental to being able to make ethical choices.
  • Mastering a discipline and thereby gaining a lens through which to understand your experiences in the world. There is a wisdom that comes of having intimate and profound knowledge of your craft, discipline or trade. It is solid. It becomes your way of understanding the world around you. If you are a communications person, you understand the world in terms of relationships between people and institutions and story-telling. If you are an engineer, you see a world organized around and by machines, rationality and buildings. Enlightened democracy comes of the conversation between people speaking credibly through these established “lenses.”
  • A sense of community with all other members of the university: faculty, students, staffers and service-people. The Academy should be a community devoted to learning, contemplation, character development, and discovery.
  • An open walking-bridge between the university and the other sectors of the country-at-large: government, industry and not-for-profits. Professors, industry people and civil servants should have greater mobility between among the three sectors. Right now, there is no flexibility and very little movement between these sectors. This is specialization and “sector atrophy” is leading to a “fragmented democracy,” where experts rule over tiny fiefs with closed minds and exclusive power.

In a knowledge society, the way we categorize knowledge in the school system will be mirrored in government and commerce. A society based on this kind of specialization can easily become a closed, stagnant technocracy. That is to say, a society governed by its experts instead of by the breadth of its own people. Openness, balance and flexibility are the keys to success for universities and colleges in 21st Century. Not expert rule.

To accomplish these five things, you need a post-secondary education that makes room for students (and professors) to gain knowledge, life experience, wisdom and caring.

Our universities and colleges should be re-organized to make this happen. Is it an impossible dream? Certainly not.

Building these institutions requires a basic material investment, of course. It means proper buildings, better grounds and more shared public spaces in which students, professors and community members can interact. Public spaces that also act as portals for the university to the other sectors. Public spaces which are easily accessible, open and welcoming. Places where people come together to observe, to share, to lounge, to eat and drink, to listen and to perform.

More importantly, this mission for universities and colleges requires a major cultural shift – away from the notion of a one-size-fits-all and one-speed-fits-all education. This means breaking down the walls between colleges and universities – and not just by tacking on a “College Year” at the end of a four-year Bachelor’s degree at university. It means finding a way of integrating college and university curricula in a thoughtful way that makes passing from one system to the other seamless. It means a thoughtful consideration of what colleges and universities contribute to the life of the mind and to the life of the hands. How do skills and theory come together to forge people and citizens who are better equipped to seek the good life?

A few years ago, Dr Geoffrey Rockwell and Dr Terry Flynn led a team that I worked on to develop a project like this for McMaster. We were going to build an integrated college-university learning community in Burlington as a new campus for McMaster University. This community would blend “applied skills”, theory, ethics, commerce and socio-cultural awareness in a small, urban, community-oriented campus environment. Students would graduate from a 5-year program with a college diploma, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree – while working on multi-year projects driven by socio-cultural, commercial or not-for-profit needs. It was splendid. And it would have worked. Administrative priorities changed, and the “Burlington Project” ended up being a graduate education centre for our business school – a great project, but very different from the original, radical concept.

Our students are leading the way forward by adopting social media and choosing personal growth and development, rather than seeking the trappings of conventional success. They are building Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village. They communicate quickly, learn fast and value emotional depth. They are also profoundly lonely, often overwhelmed by choices and stressed out by what appears to be a society where order has been replaced by “trends” and “information flows.” Business and politics are becoming much more Athenian in this way – rhetoric and persuasion are growing in importance and influence. Rules are becoming norms. Society is becoming symbolic. Information is everywhere – no longer is information confined to libraries and professors’ seminars.

Universities and colleges must adapt to this new reality. Not by paring down to the “bare bones” or by superficially rebranding themselves. Rather, they must become what they always should have been – open communities that serve society by permitting it to explore itself on campus. They should be cosmopolitan and flexible. The place of the professor is to help students and citizens (through public scholarship) navigate the ebb and flow of information. To be a trusted mentor and guide. To be an agent for change and a caring critic. To be a participant in community life and a trusted friend to the learner.

There are as many ways of feeling the world, knowing it and navigating it, as there are individuals in Canada. Each of us is born with a rich inner mental world. Each of us has dreams and fears, inspirations and anxieties. Each of us has a path to chart in our lives. Our technologies have suddenly and very abruptly shattered the dams that held back information in the past. We are flooded with ideas, images and feelings.

Universities and colleges should be safe and quiet places for us to explore ourselves. Explore knowledge, and explore how the world works.

They should be open places. People should be able go through their programs at different times during their lives. They should be open places where seminars and lectures invite the public learn and debate the pressing issues of our times. They should offer a constellation of diplomas, degrees, mini-courses, seminars, skill-building workshops, community learning, and distance-education programs.

Building this system will require a lot of thought. The system needs to be restructured to respond honestly to the changes that the information society and new communication technologies are bringing in the way we live, do business, relate to each other and govern ourselves. This sort of restructuring means new resources and a new investment. But more crucially, it means collaboration – collaboration between policy makers, professors, students, parents, industry people, civil servants and media types.

To properly and honestly adapt the post-secondary education system is a gargantuan, multi-year endeavour. But the 21st Century is the Century of Information and Communication. And the post-secondary system is the key to success and leadership in the 21st Century.

It’s time to wake up and re-build post-secondary education in an intelligent, caring and thoughtful manner.

The politician who leads the process of reform of post-secondary education for the 21st Century will join the pantheon of Canadian heroes.

NEXT TIME – What does it feel like to be a professor or a student these days?

Join the Conversation


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *