February 7, 2013 by John Douglas Belshaw
If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s nostalgia. Why, when I was a lad, we couldn’t even afford fond memories of the past. Those were happy times….
I recently visited UBC, one of my several alma maters. I confess to catching myself mid-memory (“The grotesquely gooey cinnamon buns! The mile-long plod in the rain from the parking lot! The loss of feeling in my fingertips during final exams held in the Old Armoury!”) and then set about admiring the rise of the Learning Commons model in what was once Main Library.
In an era when so many whine that ‘kids today’ (a phrase that reliably makes my teeth splinter) don’t know how to socialize because they’re too busy texting the person sitting next to them, what stands out is that everywhere one turns on campus there are students intensely working together in groups. Which is important to note because the chat-room and the group project are as emblematic of the post-secondary experience now as the lonely study carrel was to an earlier generation.
I, for one, do not get misty-eyed for study carrels. But, of course, some education commentators have a rosy if dated view of what happens on our campuses. Jeff Selingo (the editor-at-large of the mighty Chronicle of Higher Education and described in some quarters as a ‘thought-leader’) agrees. He writes, “We tend to romanticize what happens on a college campus these days to fit a vision of higher ed from a generation ago. Yet today’s students no longer fit that mold, and they are often forgotten in this debate.”
It’s not just the students who have changed. The campus itself is utterly transformed.
Take Arizona State University, for example. It is the biggest in the US, measured by enrollments. There are more than 60,000 students on its various campuses, 8,000 having been added in the last five years alone. That’s a monster. St.Francis Xavier University, by contrast, has a student population of about 4,200. Which of these is more typical of the campus university? When you close your eyes and imagine university, which one of these is more akin to what you see?
ASU has splendid grounds, great resources, its students want for nothing; St.FX is like an Elizabethan miniature – small but perfectly formed (though with a fraction of the facilities at ASU). Closer to home, the University of British Columbia has nearly 50,000 students at its Vancouver campus. That’s twice the number there when I was an undergraduate, back in the Age of Steam. Simon Fraser University has also doubled in a generation or so to about 35,000 students.
What amazingly unnatural settings. Small city-states – the largest have their own security force, cathedrals, planning departments, grocery stores, autonomous governing bodies – but populated almost entirely by people between the age of can’t-legally-drink and we’ll-always-be-friends. There are similar institutions in the Western world but armies and monasteries are very clearly run by the grown-ups for the benefit of the grown-ups. And, according to the interwebs, the gargantuan US Army base at Fort Bragg has fewer than 45,000 soldiers.
Certainly universities still pitch ‘place’ as part of the value proposition. UBC is, according to its website, “a place of mind.” SFU calls itself “the place where innovative education, cutting-edge research and community outreach collide.” Vancouver Island University uses the tag line “Love where you learn.” Location, location, location.
Selingo is right: our romanticized image of the campus is dated. There are great things about campus-based education, many of which didn’t exist a generation ago. By the same token, a campus that carries tens of thousands of students is not exactly, well, St. FX. The much-vaunted “campus experience” starts to look rather more like anonymity mixed with ennui and leavened with existential angst and a pinch of identity crisis.
In the binary-rich polemic about the future of education, this is important to keep in mind. In many cases the ‘traditional’ models bare little resemblance to the traditions they invoke. Nostalgia, as they say, just ain’t what it used to be.