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(June 28, 2001, Gazette)

 Michael TilleyYes, this is the ivory tower

Has it gotten dumber in here, or is it just me?

Because of the responsibility the state assumes as regards educational matters, and because individual states are increasingly encumbered by their role in the borderless democracy of exchange, publicly-funded universities are feeling pressure to respond to privately-directed third parties.

Postsecondary education, at one time appreciated on its own merits, is now regarded as an exclusivity, a withdrawn knowledge of an antisocial order. Learning has to be “useful,” a tool for bringing social skills to market. And everyone knows the importance of being sociable. The entire service industry is fundamentally about being liked. The feeling, I think, is that we are all so enlightened by our ultra-invasive, superficial pop-culture, our 21st century pre-packaged life, that there is no awe left for the work behind the product. Everything is so interesting that even cutting edge theories have a coffee-talk appeal which would be laughable if it were not so disgraceful: as if the only thing that keeps the rest of us out of rocketry school is interest or circumstance.

What will it take to provoke a genuine respect for learning? The university is not ultimately meant to help secure a lifestyle. No wonder graduate disillusionment is so prevalent. The university is not a co-op program, nor is it a technical college.

The university is the name that represents a community committed to the investigation of knowledge and the transmission of a tradition. That tradition is not knowledge of a particular discipline, but rather discipline itself. Scholarly achievement is not reducible to notions of relevance or opportunity. It is a difficult and artful process that many take for granted. The craft of knowledge, because it deals with open-ended issues, theoretical debate, abstract controversies, does not appeal to the public agenda exactly because it is not easily packaged and sold.

The idea of a liberal education is not meant to flatten one’s appreciation of critical culture, yet for many who pass through, the university is reduced to a spectacle, and the heart of the university, those that devote their lives to learning, are often portrayed as performing freaks. Education today is seen blandly as a basic requirement, necessary only to engage in “real world affairs,” i.e. business, politics and entertainment. And so the public become wary of wasting their tax dollars on nutty professors with outlandish ideas.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but the university is the ivory tower. It is the monument of human achievement. What separates us from the animals is just that we sustain and share an abstract body of knowledge. This is our creation. To work for a future, not a car or a career but an ideal, (being economically, politically or environmentally friendly does not count as an ideal), this is the greatest human capacity; this is the effort that changes the world, not drinking soda or getting an MBA.

But so much is invested by society at large in the baccalaureate certificate of approval because deep in the recess of the public mind there is a vague awareness of its importance, what it stands for, what it signifies for the bearer. In the modern age however, the call is not to attend university because it is an opportunity to join in on the highest human dialogue but because of a social imperative and the stigma attached to being “uneducated.” In a world where all are deemed equal we have an obligation to make sure that everyone gets their “share.”

But education is not a democracy and should not be forced to reinvent itself to reflect popular ideas. There is a discipline required of theoretical study that is missing from the contemporary university experience.

Fiscal pressures have cost the university its self-determination. If the university is to rebuild itself and flourish, as a centre of learning, it must not play handmaid to politics or economics. If business or government can say “forget about all that, study this,” then there is no hope. “This” is often nothing more than short-sighted self interest. Education is not about acquiring things. It is not about learning more than the next guy so that you can outsmart the competition. But there is a distinct feeling that success is all about taking the right courses to get the right degree. To use our brains in the most efficient way. Maximize the product get he greatest return.

Here’s the way I see it: The university cannot survive without selling its students on the open market. Meanwhile an aging population means that Canadian universities expect openings in 25,000 to 30,000 positions in the next decade. But what kind of educators are these pop-students going to make? If students of today are the future custodians of the university, we’re going to have one heck of a janitorial staff.

Is it really the job of the university the teach us how to make money? How much is it going to cost us if they do?

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