The vaunted academy is, let’s face it, not what it used to be – if it ever was.
I still remember college barkers gathering at my high school’s gymnasium in mid-1970s Halifax, pushing their various institutions’ alleged merits like so many army recruiters.
“If you want to be all you can be, then Saint Mary’s is the place for you, son. We’ll set you up for a real career in commerce, or applied basket weaving – whichever you prefer.”
Not so fast boyo, enthused the clean-faced man from Dalhousie’s development department (read: public relations):
“Have we got a deal for you. Take a full course load in business administration and you can be out and making money within 26 months – earlier if you opt for the co-op placement program.”
Row after row of pot-bellied, middle-aged men wearing bad suits and worse ties – refugees, I always imagined, from the advertising departments of local radio stations – would make the same pitch: A university education is only as valuable as the degree to which it advances your chances for material comfort later in life.
Do you want a good house, a fine car, a reliable job with a fat pension? Go to college.
Do you desire a thick retirement package, a gold watch at the end of your socially useful professional career, a rewarding set of hobbies you can afford to pursue? Well, then, by all means, sign on the dotted line, fork over a few hundred bucks, and you’re on your way.
I always likened these salesmen for academe to boatmen on the River Styxx, reaping young minds and sending them into their own, private Hades long before their time on this mortal coil was up.
The names of the barkers have changed, along with the body shapes and sartorial styles, but the message, alas, has remained largely the same: Higher education in this country, region, province is an economic imperative; not an intellectual one, certainly not a spiritual one.
In fact, it could be all three if governments, public and private school boards, and university administrators would agree to convene regularly to remind themselves that their true purpose is toproduce citizens who think critically, empathically and imaginatively about the world they inhabit and will, someday, lead.
Making kids “job-ready” in a marketplace where jobs change daily is a chump’s game. Making them “thought-ready”, on the other hand, is simply wise public policy. The fearless, innovative, cheerful and indefatigable will always change society – mostly, history demonstrates, for the better.
That means we must begin to remove the crypto-vocational aspects from the university system and return to courses and programs that build the intellectual muscle this planet needs to solve its direst problems – problems that a classical education in math, science, history, literature, and language directly address.
According to the recruiters at my high school, before the Internet made wiseacres of us all, I was a true disappointment. I chose a university course of study that mixed physical sciences with social ones (geology, biology, politics, philosophy, classics). I labored at it for years, failing, succeeding, failing again, and succeeding again.
When I was finally done, finally “job-ready”, I found that I was utterly unequipped to make the big salary, buy the big car, and live in the big house.
I was, however, “thought-ready”.
And the rewards have arrived apace, without force, as they have for my own children who cherish, above all, the notion that the critical knowing of things is the road to wisdom, even as the world does not always recognize the importance of either.