Tag Archives: University of Prince Edward Island

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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Waiting to breathe

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Apparently, we, in certain boroughs of the Maritimes, display a unique method of offering our approbation (or opprobrium, as the case may be) to those who would tell us how to think about ourselves.

Some of us tend to inhale “yep, yep” when we like what we hear. Some of us are prone to exhale “nope, nope” when we disagree with our Tim Horton coffee companions.

According to Anne Furlong, at the University of Prince Edward Island’s English department, this is. . .well. . .a real thing. It even has an official designation. As the CBC recently reported, “In linguistics, inhaling in agreement is called ingressive pulmonic speech or an ingressive particle.”
Says Professor Furlong: “Ingressive means breathing in, pulmonic refers to the lungs and a particle is a part of speech which is not necessarily a full word like cat or dog, but which is used in conversation.”

Furthermore, it seems to be a Northern European phenomenon. Again, says the good professor, “We don’t know whether it’s. . .something that is native to Celtic speakers, but we do know, however, is that there is a long overlap – hundreds of years – between the Vikings (from whom these verbal affectations are thought to have originated) and the northern people of the British Isles.

“We do know that (this patois is) widely distributed in Scotland, Northern Ireland, parts of the north of England, which is exactly where you’d expect the people from Prince Edward Island, and parts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, to come from. . . (Prince Edward Islanders) are perfectly well aware that when they move to other parts of the world – even to other parts of Atlantic Canada – they are immediately recognized as Islanders because of the way they speak.”

Yep, yep.

Still, let’s test this theory.

If I were to propose that, henceforth, all university tuitions in New Brunswick would be waived for people earning less than $50,000 a year, what would you say?

Yep, yep, (take a big breath).

If, however, I were to stipulate that free higher education comes with a cost – say, another two points on your annual income tax and a bit more on the provincial portion of the HST – how would you emote?

Nope, nope, (exhale at your leisure).

Good, now we’re getting somewhere.

Does clean wind energy in this province, which possesses some of the finest, most reliable breezes in the world, make sense?

Yep.

Do you want to live anywhere near a turbine, which might reduce your property values because somebody says it will?

Nope.

Should your kids learn how to read, write and speak both French and English in Canada’s only officially bilingual province?

Yep.

Should you spend your time ensuring that public officials work hard to do just that?

Nope.

And what about early childhood education in New Brunswick? The statistics say that a good start in life breeds better citizens and munificent economic opportunities down the road. Does this sound good?

Yep.

On the other hand, are you willing to put in the hours, the effort, required to keep this issue before the eyes of those who we elect to protect and preserve our best interests?

Nope.

Yep, yep.

Nope, nope.

The pendulum swings daily, hourly, minute-by-minute.

All the while we wait to inhale, wait to exhale.

This is, in fact, our very own version of what Professor Furlong describes as “ingressive pulmonic speech”. Apparently, we inherited it, as we have so many nasty habits of history in this region.

Breathe people and then bark like the glorious citizens you are.

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