Go Varsity

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December 3, 2012 by John Douglas Belshaw


I’m white, male, and 55 years old. If I live to be 300, I’ll never be as white as these guys.

In 1912 the proportion of the population that went to college or university was tiny. It was all but 100% male and almost entirely Christian. Universities were publicly owned exclusive clubs, finishing schools for a particular class of men, most of whom were from the west side of town – the neighbourhood closest to the university itself.

One hundred years ago university was only slightly further out of reach for men than high school.  Only a minority of males attended, let alone graduated, Grade 12. The post-secondary education sector (the PSE) was created with that minority in mind. The nation’s elite – white, male, Christian, wealthy – had the resources that enabled them to take four years of ‘unproductive’ time to swan about campuses and fraternity houses.

And they remained few in numbers. In 1931 there were barely more than 2,000 students at UBC (of whom roughly 1% were Chinese-Canadians). Point Grey was a campus community where it was, indeed, possible to know everyone – and impossible to avoid anyone. Some people will say that these students were a ‘better class’ of learner and maybe I’ll come back to that at some later blog but let’s just say now that they thrived in universities because the universities reflected their values and culture perfectly. It also reinforced their privilege: remember that many of the professions in BC and Canada, including Medicine and Pharmacy were officially closed to non-whites and Jews until the 1970s.

So, imagine you’re in an early-twentieth-century educational system designed to round-out the education of the children of the elite.  You’re part of a small cohort and you all know precisely where you will spend your careers: working within the network of business, profession, industry, and government in which your families are nested. It’s not a hugely competitive environment (not when your father is going to be your employer), and the ‘soft skills’ you’ll need to succeed were learned at the dinner table when you were a child. In all seriousness, as a UBC undergrad you are far more likely to play cricket than baseball. And that says something.

Since the end of the Second World War the share of the population going to post-secondary has risen steadily and dramatically. What’s more, the last sixty years of PSE has seen enormous changes in the ‘client’: they’re far less WASPy, vastly more female, drawn from all socio-economic classes, financially vulnerable, and poorly networked into the power elite.  And yet, despite laudable ‘access for all’ initiatives and an emergent generation of PSE leaders whose own experiences were perhaps post-modern, the dominant model remains unchanged: classroom, professorial wisdom, four-year degrees, a rite of passage into adulthood, and a learning environment that owes more to an idealized vision of classical Greece than it does to the wi-fi generation.

The resemblance to Vancouver’s aging viaducts is striking (which takes us back to my first blog). The infrastructure over-determines behavior.  Having built the viaducts, we oblige our vehicles to follow the path laid out before them.  What’s more, we struggle to imagine ways of moving humans outside of the equation of cars + speed = efficiency.

Having built the campuses, we’d best populate them with people who will proceed in the right direction at the right speed and will act out the role of our ideal of students in pursuing degrees that have not, in most cases, changed much in forty years or more. And since most of the campuses were built to mid-20th century specs, we’re struggling to find the balance between making best use of what we’ve got and finding better ways to do things.

The structure, in other words, is inherited and it has a huge influence on how we do (and how we imagine how we might do) education.

Next week: Imagine all the Campuses


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