“All Together Now”: Timeline, URGENT (Generation at stake)

Over lunch a week ago, a colleague asked me if I’d read the Coates and Morrison essay “The Uses and Abuses of University” in the October 2012 edition of The Walrus. I hadn’t. And, as I discovered when I sat down to read it last weekend, I had not, in one sense, missed a thing. The argument is an anti-intellectual one, with the anti-intellectualism greatly heightened by the accompanying illustrations by Graham Roumieu (showcased below, in the order that they appear in the Walrus article). I am nevertheless glad my colleague drew my attention to the article, for the position Coates and Morrison have struck demands a response. And not just from me: the article demands a response from all of us who believe in the importance of what we do as academics, and what is at stake for our students.

Coates and Morrison’s argument goes something like this:

The professoriate at Canada’s universities are busy doling out, to the members of “a new class whose education is poorly matched with the national economy,” pieces of paper of little to no worth. Roumieu’s illustration, in which the figure handing a degree to a graduate is a wizard, implies that Canada’s professors are charlatans subjecting Canada’s university students to one or another spell, the greatest spell of all, presumably, being the one in which they dupe them into believing that their education and their degrees are things of value. With the exception of a brief reference to the “intellectual merits” of a degree at the very end of the article, Coates and Morrison construe the value of degrees throughout entirely in relation to the “job market.”

In their folly, parents of this generation of Canadians urge their children to get university degrees believing that these will set them up for high-salaried futures. Instead, they are setting their children up for a state of “crisis” when they discover, newly minted degrees in hand, that no matter how “modest” their ambitions may be, “jobs that fit their qualifications [will] seem impossible to find.” This will, of course, be more markedly the case if their children obtain a “basic bachelor’s degree in English, chemistry, outdoor recreation, or psychology.” Parents would be far better off encouraging their children to pick up a trade. As it stands, “a mere 2 percent” of Canada’s parents do this. The great majority of Canada’s parents thus permit their children to launch themselves into an unstable future, in which they struggle (romantic fools) to wrest their future from a myth.

For the last half century, immigrants, women, the working class, and “people of colour and First Nations” have been joining the ranks of those pursuing degrees at universities. “As late as 1960,” Coates and Morrison write, “universities remained the domain of white men.”  Now, “[t]here are nearly 1.1 million students on campus, nearly 60 percent of them women.” In syntax that implies a causal link between the changing demographics of universities in terms of the gender, race, and class background of students and the purported decline in university standards, Coates and Morrison aver: “this means that in the three generations since World War II, Canadian universities have shifted from being preserves of the rich, the gifted and the intensely ambitious into the academic equivalent of intramural sports, where the premium rests on mass participation rather than on high achievement.” Roumieu’s accompanying illustration depicts a young man, seemingly Asian, bedazzled by an aura-emitting book while holding a degree emitting a star-spangled aura of its own. The graduate’s befuddlement is so deep that he cannot (it seems) keep his eyes open, and his mental confusion is signified by various black curlicues and squiggles around his capped head. Those Wizards: they deal in the black arts.

In the late 1990s, and through the last decade, the Canadian government gave the Wizards lots of money for their spells, but it also required them to teach more students. Coates and Morrison’s text focuses on analyzing the results as a matter of where the “return on time and money invested” is worthwhile. And while they note that there are “intellectual and even civic benefits of certification creep,” as they call the Canadian penchant for post-secondary education, and even go so far as to contradict themselves when they acknowledge that bachelor’s degrees are important foundations for professional degrees in law and medicine, they insist on construing the situation in general as one of “credential overproduction” for which the returns are poor. They single out a bachelor’s degree in history as one with an especially poor return. There is not even a hint that universities are places where students learn to think, and do so (especially where they are pursuing a bachelor’s degree in one of the disciplines in Arts or Science) by taking on the history of ideas within their choice of specialization, or that any of that matters. Once again, Roumieu’s illustration deepens the anti-intellectual premises of the text: readers see three students being treated with such contempt that they are not even supplied with seats while a man wearing doctoral robes, to their displeasure, stands looming above them pulling a rabbit out of his doctoral cap.

Roumieu’s next illustration, which depicts an angry graduate, degree in hand, chasing down a Wizard on the run, suggests that Coates and Morrison’s “unhappy graduates” ought to turn on their professors. Meanwhile, Coates and Morrison’s text suggests that Canadians might take the Estonian government, which “subsidizes all of the [university] seats in high-demand areas,” and gives “only elite students” the subsidies they need to study what they want, as a model. Where did we ever get the silly notion that students ought to be free to study what they choose? When we “encourage [students] to study what they want, rather than to focus on what the economy needs,” we let “tens of thousands of eighteen-year-old first-year students” make decisions from which “the economy suffers.” How wrong of us to let teenagers defy Economy’s needs, and make Economy suffer! It is time for Canada to follow the likes of Estonia by “directing students into fields with the greatest need.” The argument that some students might be directed to paid pigeon-holes while the “elite” are left free to do as they please (with the criteria for determining who may or may not be considered “elite” going unstated) is accompanied by the Roumieu illustration of a robed and capped man, degree in hand and feet unshod beneath ragged trouser hems, staring at a selection of “silly hats.” The implication, of course, is that the silliest hat of all is the one he’s sporting on his own head. 

In this light, demands for “low tuition fees . . . and more access to university” are (in their view) ludicrous. What can either of these things produce other than “even more graduates” and a “further ero[sion of] the quality and value of undergraduate education”? No, as far as they are concerned, there can be only one solution: the Wizards must come to grip “with the reality that for most students [universities] are chiefly job training institutions. Until they accept this fact, the disconnect between the academy and the world of work will continue to grow.” Ah, yes! Roumieu’s illustrations  had been doing the work of preparing us for this conclusion, hadn’t they? There is something terribly anti-collegial about Coates and Morrison’s argument, and the aspect of it heightened by Roumieu’s illustrations, in which those Canadians working at Canada’s universities as researcher-scholars and giving back to Canadians some of the fruits of that work in the form of their teaching are presented as diabolical figures producing a “lost generation of university graduates.”

Well, there do not appear to have been many.

Léo Charbonneau has offered one, however, in his award-winning blog for University Affairs, “Margin Notes,” where he writes that he finds Coates and Morrison’s “arguments unconvincing and some of their wording hyperbolic.” Charbonneau notes, for example, that analysis of StatsCan’s Labour Force Survey shows that “in May 2012, there were 613,000 more jobs for university graduates than there were in May 2008 at the outset of the recession – a 15-percent increase. By this July, the number of new jobs for university graduates, measured since July 2008, was 700,000.”

So at the very least the facts and “realities” of the Coates and Morrison article need to be disputed. 

In the Walrus’s comments section, a commentator writing under the moniker “Hooray Useless Degrees” offers some bigger-picture analysis. What is “curious,” s/he writes, “about [the article’s] central claim — that the university system is failing to prepare its students for the ‘realities’ of the job market — is its desire to blame the universities, rather than the real culprit: the economy itself.” There is a great deal more to be said about that, and the deep blind-spot in Coates and Morrison’s thinking as presented in the article, where there isn’t even a hint that the economy may in any way be to blame. Hooray suggests that “universities have been responding to this kind of misplaced critique,” and that “there are plenty of job-training degrees at the universities now [which] are popular with students because they, and their parents, have been primed by this kind of article to live in a state of perpetual fear and study only Jobs U degrees, and nothing else.” S/he attempts to rally readers to reject Coates and Morrison’s argument: “So, all together now: it’s the economy, not the universities, that are the problem here.”

Whether your own instincts are to agree or disagree, we must all at least note what any undergraduate student receiving rigorous training in how to think at a Canadian university would be able to point out to Coates and Morrison. Coates and Morrison assert a mismatch between the economy and what universities are doing and producing, and insist that the solution lies in the alteration of one of these two factors. Any student in first-year philosophy or mathematics could identify the logical error in their presumption: if x does not match with y, on what basis is y alone held up as the problem? If you are persuaded by their argument that there is indeed a mismatch, then the question that needs to be asked is, what is wrong with the economy? How might the economy have to change to resolve the problem? And how do we change the “job market”?

The problem is not that “the system,” in its refusal to “cater to the job market,” has been “produc[ing] many more bachelor’s degrees than the job market warranted.” The problem is that Canadian culture has not committed to finding ways to put the “tens of thousands” of twenty-two year-olds exiting universities with degrees in hand to work for the culture. And this is tied to the chronic underinvestment in the traditional core of our universities: the faculties of Arts and Science.

Though they certainly host disciplines that have what we could call “applied” aspects, the faculties of Arts and Science primarily “teach students how to think, or how to “think about thinking” as Melonie Fullick suggests in a recent post for University Affairs, where she writes that universities are places for “metacognition,” or learning “about how to learn.” I would go further: Arts and Science teach students how to think their way out of or beyond what has been previously thought. Students in Arts and Science are committed to the principle that humanity is a work-in-progress, and that everything that currently obtains can be bettered. Students in Arts, in particular, are committed to the principle that it must be bettered: all is not right in the world, and by getting an education in certain disciplines they can contribute to that project. The challenge for Canada is to put these students to work.

The disappointment that students in Arts, especially, experience when they exit the university, degree in hand, is not that their society does not have a “job” for them, but that it lacks the vision and the corresponding infrastructure to harness their immense talents. These students have the capacity to contribute to the task of shaping social forms and ways of being that would move us out of very limited conceptions of how to organize the resources of the planet into forms and ways of being that are more just. We fail them when we declare that there are too many of them, or suggest that the situation in which they find themselves is their own fault for valuing a post-secondary education over the choice of a trade. There is no question that lots of students graduating from university experience distress at this situation. Someone writing as “Daniel d’Arthez” notes in the Walrus comments, “You can’t just take a human being and mold them into whatever job the market has need of.” These students desire to put their creative and intellective capacities to work for Canadian culture, and we are letting them down — and by “we” I mean all Canadians. The situation in which these students find themselves risks making a tragedy of post-secondary education, a tragedy that we will deepen, not resolve, if we follow Coates and Morrison in laying the fault upon professors and insisting that Canada’s universities  define themselves as “job training institutions.”

To make matters worse, Coates and Morrison trot out an ahistorical and false conception of the university. “University degrees,” they write, “originally derived their value from two elements: specialized expertise (medicine, engineering, law), and scarcity.” Coates and Morrison apparently do not understand that the university is an institution of many centuries’ standing, and while it was not unknown for them to include some advanced study of medicine and law, they “originally derived their value” (inasmuch as they were ever construed in such crude terms) from their core instruction — which turned, as the Cambridge University declares on its website, on “what would now be termed a ‘foundation course’ in arts – grammar, logic and rhetoric – followed later by arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy.” Schools of engineering are a modern invention; Cambridge’s department of engineering (for example) was not founded until 1875. And a man who wanted to practice common law in sixteenth-century England had to head for the Inns of Court in London (which were nicknamed “the third university” by an early seventeenth-century writer, but were not, of course, a university at all). Ignoring all of that to proffer their own idea of where the “value” of a university degree “originally” lay, Coates and Morrison urge upon us the idea of a freshly paternalistic state that will agree to pay students to study some subjects and not others, with only the “elite” getting to study what they wish. Coates and Morrison claim that the academy has been producing a “new class” of the improperly educated and underemployed, but it is their ideas, if pursued, that would produce a “new class”: a new class of the subordinated, trained to supply a system of work, rather than a generation of Canadians capable of imagining and shaping a Canada organized in better, more humane, more just ways than those that currently prevail. If we subscribe to this thinking, we will indeed be at risk of losing a generation — a generation of Canadian thinkers

And that’s where we humanists come in.

We need to bring our skills to bear upon what history needs of us in a given moment. And one thing that history requires of us right now is that we stand up for what we do, and communicate, urgently, its importance.

Do we all have the time to be writing articles of our own for the Walrus? Unfortunately, no. And we’ll have even less of that kind of time if public policy types such as Ian Clark, cited, along with Coates and Morrison in Margaret Wente’s latest column for the Globe and Mail, have their way. Clark is urging a turn to “performance” metrics. In the good old Canadian tradition of seizing bad ideas from elsewhere, he would have the government allocate funding to particular universities based on “readily available indicators of research performance for individual professors.” (This is the model that English universities have disastrously been pursuing.) If Clark has his way, we’ll all find ourselves further submerged in the pressures of meeting individual obligations to the academy, and have even less time for standing up for what we do as a collective enterprise. But there are various ways in which we can contribute to the challenge of consciously, explicitly, and energetically promoting what each of us does in our area of specialization as part of a larger, collective enterprise.

Blogging is one of them. As Ernesto Priego (University College London Centre for Digital Humanities) noted in the Guardian’s Higher Education section last week, “blogging is the ultimate form of collegiality – if we understand collegiality as the relationship of professional colleagues united in a common purpose and respecting each other’s abilities to work toward that purpose.” So blog about it! Or talk about these issues in public speeches! Or take even a moment to respond in the comments section on the Walrus site, which appears still to be open. Or respond here . . . . But somewhere, in public, offer views other than this dismaying one of Coates and Morrison’s, or we’ll have to deal with the consequences of the likes of Margaret Wente enjoining Canadians to believe that Coates and Morrison are right

The larger point is that we have a responsibility to our students, and that responsibility is not to turning universities into job-training institutions. It is to argue and demonstrate how the economy will not suffer, but grow, if Canada has the vision to put our students — especially students in the humanities, those possessors of so-called “worthless degrees” — to work. Let us help them alter the economy as we know it to create something better. As Emmett Macfarlane, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, urged last week in Maclean’s “On Campus,” “our universities are far too important to be diminished by myths and bad ideas.” All together now: Canada needs to invest in its university graduates, and find innovative ways to put them to work, for those students have the talents and the education to bring a stronger, more prosperous Canada into being — and the potential to invent an entirely different economy, not just for Canada, but for the world.

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