Imagine all the Campuses

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December 10, 2012 by John Douglas Belshaw

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article, Rick Ostrander invokes Marshall McLuhan:  “Technology is not a neutral ether through which ideas flow from teacher to student. Rather, the technology itself shapes those ideas in profound ways. As an educator … I wonder what messages our wonderful devices convey to our students in addition to words, music, and videos.”  True enough. But it’s not as if the campus as we know it is a “neutral ether” either.*

McLuhan derived many of his ideas from his mentor, Harold Innis, whose rambling and brilliant thoughts on the subject can be found in The Bias of Communication (1951). Innis compared empires built on stone (like those of the Middle East or, one might add, Meso-America, which wrote their memos on tablets or columns) and empires erected on parchment and paper (respectively, the Christian Church and the globe-straddlers of the last two centuries).  Writing on stone worked well for concentrated, intensely autocratic and rule-based civilizations – they tended to last a very long time even if they didn’t get out much. Paper enabled the movement of ideas and navies with results both excellent and disastrous.

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The Library at Alexandria. Before the Dewey Decimal system.

The modern university is a product of the paper empires and yet, ironically perhaps, they aim to replicate the hub of a stone empire: Alexandria.  Their huge libraries and their centralizing of both knowledge and authority is more akin to the ancient Greco-Egyptian system than it is to any parliament or congress.

In fact, many of our post-secondary institutions –almost all in British Columbia – send a powerful signal of mistrust of the civitas through their very fibre. 

Here on the west coast we have a long tradition of locating our institutions on the margin.  UBC at Point Grey, SFU atop Burnaby Mountain, UNBC along the ridge of Cranbrook Hill more than 3km from the edge of town, UVic off in deepest suburbia, UBC-Okanagan out by the airport.  Sure, there are some downtown campuses as well, but those are branch offices. And the downtown campuses tend to offer programming in Business or continuing studies, rather than a B.A. or a B.Sc.

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Simon Fraser U, atop Burnaby Mountain. There are whimsical allusions to Machu Picchu, but with more cars and busses.

These are isolate campuses, conceived as physical ivory towers removed from civic culture and commerce. At best, the neighbourhoods that surround the universities might be described as ‘bedroom communities.’  Venturing onto the campus is, thus, venturing into a separate realm where civic authority, industry and business are conspicuously absent.  In BC, until very recently, in order to ‘go to university’ one literally had to get in the car or on the bus and go someplace. Seclusion and dormitories were the most striking features. Many of BC’s colleges needlessly reproduced this pattern, as did most of  the older PSE institutions in western Canada. In Quebec, Laval’s got it real bad.

What do we value in post-secondary education right at this moment? Flexibility, work-ready skills, connection with community, experiential learning.  Any student (typically taking 3-4 courses) who must commute out to the edge of things for classroom learning while they hold down a job or two off-campus (because that’s where the jobs are), and then engage in some experiential project with a community partner (also not likely to be on campus) is going to be stretched in ways that earlier generations simply were not.

When faculty and administrators rail against the digitization of education, are they missing the point? As in Point Grey? Ought one not concede that the temple appeals to and serves many, but not all? And that it does so from a perspective that is far from “neutral”?

*Either ether.

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