Are our universities failing?

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In the seven years I spent at Dalhousie University, fairly sailing through my class load, I took my share of ‘bird courses’, never thinking about a job.

I spent some time examining the effect of Beatles’ music on popular culture. I worked on an essay about the geography of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’ and how this represented the Bible’s ‘End Times’.

No one in my cohort of students in the 1970s shall ever forget the ‘nature versus nurture’ arguments that dominated the lecture halls of academe.

Now, a University of Prince Edward Island professor of religious studies posits some fascinatingly angry points about the condition of his craft, his institution and his passion.

Says Ron Srigley in a recent edition of The Walrus: “I teach mostly bored youth who find themselves doing something they neither value nor desire . . . in order to achieve an outcome they are repeatedly warned is essential to their survival. What a dreadful trap. Rather than learning freely and excelling, they’ve become shrewd managers of their own careers and are forced to compromise what is best in themselves – their honesty or character – in order to ‘make it’ in the world we’ve created for them.”

The good professor worries that kids, insuffienctly equipped to embrace the arduous task of actually learning something worthwhile, will become the new vanguard of blunt, meaningless mediocrity in society. Worse, we parents, educators, university administrators are grinding down the edges of their intellects with every utterance we make about “relevance” in higher education.

“A couple of years ago, I dimmed the lights in order to show a clip of an interview,” Professor Srigley relates. “I was trying to make a point about the limits of human aspiration, a theme discussed in one of our readings, and I’d found an interview with Woody Allen in which he urged that we recognize the ultimate futility of all endeavours. The moment the lights went down, dozens and dozens of bluish, iPhone-illumined faces emerged from the darkness. That’s when I understood that there were several entertainment options available to students in the modern university classroom, and that lectures rank well below Twitter, Tumblr, or Snapchat.”

Frankly, nothing in this 5,000-word piece is unfamiliar to me. This stuff was happening with nauseating frequency when I was an undergraduate 35 years ago. What’s troubling, if we are to believe Mr. Srigley, is that conditions in academe have deteriorated to the extent that young ‘scholars’, their parents and university administrators now regard faculty members with advanced degrees as nothing more than handmaidens to the callow, vapid career aspirations of those who hold enough coin to buy a piece of commencement paper.

If Mr. Srigley overstates his case, it’s not by much.

The last time I suggested, in writing, that this region’s university presidents (read: CEOs) were more interested in the condition of their institutions’ bottom lines than they were in the state of their students’ capacity for critical thinking, I was called on the plush, red carpet of the Association of Atlantic Universities (The Inquisition’s bureaucratic arm, perhaps?)

In the seven years I spent at Dalhousie University working to understand Socrates, Aristotle, Hobbes, Mill, Hume, Bloom, Faulkner (and not Tolkien or C.S. Lewis), I learned how to think and, in my own way, how to teach.

I also learned how to tell the truth to myself and to my children about the way the world – sometimes corrupted, always promising ­– works.

So has, in his own life, Professor Ron Srigley.

Time will tell, of course, if he still has a job.

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