What do these people have in common?
Well, they are all part of a group of “Advisors” that the Globe and Mail— the national newspaper that has decided that it’s its “Time to Lead” — has consulted about the state of post-secondary education in Canada. Quotes from each, of about a hundred words in length, feature as part of a weekend Interactive special, “Transforming the Ivory Tower,” in which readers can watch videos from several other “Voices on Education,” as well as contribute to a poll that asks whether or not readers think Canadian universities continue to be “relevant.” Presumably the Globe means relevant to contemporary society. It hasn’t bothered to specify. From the way many of these Advisors talk the assumption might be, relevant to a capitalist economy.
There is so much talk amongst them (and the “Voices” featured in the videos) of networks and systems and “cognitive skills” and outputs, you’d think students were machines, and universities factories. The insistent note: universities must do better at addressing the “economy” and the “market” in order that their graduates can secure jobs.
Why such limited thinking?
Well, the twenty-five people above have something else in common: not one of them is a humanist.
That’s right: the Globe has brought together 25 people it would like its readers to regard as authorities on the subject of post-secondary education in Canada, and it hasn’t bothered to include a single humanist amongst them. It wants to talk about the state of the contemporary university in Canada, but its panel of Advisors does not include even a single voice from the Humanities.
Is it any wonder, then, that not a single one of these Advisors refers to universities as places for the generation of thought, or places where students study the history of ideas in order that they might innovate in relation to what it exists in order to bring a better world into being? Surely universities are places where we give students something more than, as the French philosopher Jacques Rancière puts it, “the intelligence of their job,” or “unintelligence befitting their subordinate position” (my emphasis).
This is not to say that we do not need (in the current state of the world) a great deal of skilled labour. Of course we do. But why would we limit what the contemporary university can achieve by defining its role in relation to providing students with specific skills to secure jobs in a world that desperately needs to redefine what we do if we are truly to develop the individual and collective talents of humanity? Sure, if the Globe and Mail wants to purvey to its readers advice on how to reshape universities so that they supply skilled workers for the digital economy — or so that they become glorified technical schools — it should speak to people invested in matters of technology and business. But if it truly wants to consider how Canadians might redefine the contemporary university, why doesn’t it try talking to a few humanists?
That said, kudos to Iglika Ivanova (Economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) for her claim that “Higher education in Canada is being transformed, and not in a good way, as colleges and universities scramble to replace the public funding they used to rely on with tuition fees and private donations.” Ivanova calls for increased public investment. Kudos too to Robert Huish (Dalhousie) for suggesting that universities should be places where we nurture the passion and compassion of our students while facilitating their capacity for political engagement. And, finally, kudos to Karen Foster, Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in Management at Saint Mary’s University, for suggesting that the single most important transformation that Canada’s universities currently require involves a dramatic shift back to collegial governance. Let me end by sharing Foster’s excerpted statement in full: