Viable? (I don’t know viable. Vy not a donkey?)

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November 19, 2012 by John Douglas Belshaw

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Access to Education.  Courtesy of UniverCity Environmental Stewards blog.

Last week’s cliffhanger was this: is the campus university a viable model in the 21st century?  Is it so rooted in a particular era that, like highways and viaducts, it needs to be reconsidered?

Reconsideration is, in fact, well underway. The lecture hall and campus-based institution are vestiges of an earlier era whose pre-eminence is no longer taken for granted.  These infrastructural artifacts were answers to questions posed at a particular time in a particular environment.  Those things have changed.

Oxford and Cambridge were monastic institutions made up of religious orders and cathedrals, “dreaming spires” in the countryside in which the young elite huddled to stay warm. Big 20th century campuses – like UBC or even the University of Northern BC – resemble industrial hives more than monasteries, but it’s definitely in their DNA.  There’s that sense of removal from the teeming masses, ascending an ivory tower, or at least a long driveway lined with trees, and getting away from the grit and banality of material life. It is an ideal and it is more than a shadow, even if the 20th century university was designed to handle more students than Oxbridge ever would.

Oxford and Cambridge are small county towns; the modern university in Canada is an urban phenomenon. Most of our major universities were designed to serve large numbers in a country whose population was growing rapidly. They were geared to the 100 to 200-seat lecture hall, the classroom equivalent of a freeway or even, yes, a viaduct. Everyone got a dose of Homer’s Iliad and a first-year Science course, all delivered by what we call the ‘sage on the stage,’ the professor (robed or not) who had mastered their arcane field.  We are all individuals, all seated, all facing the same way, all getting the same message.

In the early 20th century, there weren’t a lot of professors about, so gathering pearls of wisdom from the few that could be found made a good deal of sense. As the century gathered steam and as universities grew, so too did the production of PhDs. In the 1960s, while freeways were being laid across Canadian cities, new campuses sprang up. Remember that the theme of the era was the conquest of nature and nothing so symbolized that space-race struggle as Simon Fraser University – a campus built on the top of a very large hill, constructed entirely out of poured concrete and re-bars. It was accessed by a four-lane highway named after the Minister of Highways of the day, a powerful gesture of a road that cut through the mountain forest to the local freeway.  Take that, nature and gravity!

So, more universities, more professors, producing still more graduates and, yes, more PhDs. Almost all of which were hard at work in the same classroom configuration, in lecture halls where the seats are bolted to the floor.

Like the automobile, the lecture hall model is really about infrastructure. It takes a lot of concrete – a lot of viaducts – to keep cars moving. And it takes a lot of campus space to provide post-secondary education, certainly in the traditional delivery mode.

What has changed? For starters, gas isn’t two-bits an imperial gallon anymore. And – a long time ago – urban became suburban and UBC is as far from Metro Vancouver’s demographic centre as it can be, short of barging it out into the strait. Our society is vastly more diverse than it was even in the 1960s.  Our ‘industrial economy’ is vastly overshadowed by service, creative, and professional elements. Our middle class is shrinking. More students are holding down more jobs in order to pay more fees. They’re studying part-time … in droves.

There’s a military saying: ‘we are always ready to fight the last war.’  Think of the cavalry charges against machine gunners in the Great War, the heavy use of infantry and air assaults against a light and mobile guerrilla force in Viet Nam, the ‘war on terrorism’ that puts troops into the field against a force that doesn’t actually have any troops of its own.

Likewise in education, we’re ready to teach like it’s 1899.

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3 thoughts on “Viable? (I don’t know viable. Vy not a donkey?)

  1. I personally think I got far more out of my education by taking ten years to finish my business degree while working (mostly) full-time. I took advantage of my college’s co-op program which, while my first job wasn’t “the one”, bridged me directly into a job in my field of study where I was able to apply everything I was learning and take much of what I was learning back into the classroom where I was even more successful academically. I’m also finding my post-graduate work far more rewarding than most of my cohort who are finding balancing work and studies a significant struggle.

    While a ten-year degree isn’t for everyone, I tell every young student I talk to that they should reconsider smashing through their degree as fast as possible and hoping a great job will await them on the other side.

    Redefining the model so that stories like mine are not unusual is not only necessary given the economic climate and educational market but I think it’s better for the students in the long run.

    • Fewer and fewer students can afford the old barrel-through at high speeds model anyhow, Allyson. If that’s the case, how do we make the system responsive? Your experience sounds like an excellent one … in the 1970s, ’80s, and even the ’90s, however, folks might criticize the 10 year degree as (a) prolonging childhood and dependence, (b) dilettantism, and (c) educationally bad because by the time you got to 4th year Marketing you would have forgotten everything you learned in Intro. All of which is rubbish. And yet so many institutions still design and privilege programs that reward the 4-year Bachelor(ette) and penalize or at least inconvenience the 10-year student. Why should that be the case?

      • A very rudimentary theory – people teach what they’ve been taught. An individual whose path included a four-year degree is more likely to see that as “the way” than an individual whose path differed. Not that they’re incapable of seeing it another way, but we do tend to value and teach our own experiences over others.

        I’ll be back with more. That was just the first thing that jumped out at me.

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