Do schools serve the individual or the greater good?

Post-secondary institutions sometimes have conflicting goals and interests. (Photo by Brett Farmiloe/Flickr)
Post-secondary institutions sometimes have conflicting goals and interests. (Photo by Brett Farmiloe/Flickr)

BURNABY, B.C. (CUP) — Universities are in the midst of a crisis. Unlike so much else in the world today, it’s not a financial, staffing or ideological crisis — it’s an identity crisis.

It’s the fact that nobody, not the government, not the schools and certainly not the student body, knows what they want university to be anymore.

I think a lot of this can be traced back to timidity and a fear of appearing elitist. As universities became de-facto meritocracies and their admissions processes no longer focusing quite so heavily on your father’s land holdings, attitudes towards post-secondary began to change.

The scope of university education began to swell. The modern Canadian university now encompasses the curricula of yesteryear’s universities and colleges, its art and trade schools. When “university” became socially synonymous with “worthwhile,” and the term “academic” lost all specific meaning, it became difficult to justify not welcoming every possible field of study.

The University of South Carolina now even offers sociology classes on Lady Gaga.

This is all fine, really. Nobody ever said that the university should be impervious to change, and a dance instructor in Building A doesn’t devalue the chemist’s work in Building B. However, the thinking surrounding university’s social role has not evolved in tandem with its admissions policies.

Take, for instance, tuition protests. They are a fairly ubiquitous part of university life, mostly built around two logically exclusive implications. The first is that university increases civil worth; the more post-secondary education a population has, the better that society will be.

The second is that university education is so vital to a worthwhile, fully-actualized life that it borders on a human right. The legitimacy of either interpretation is highly suspect, and each one would seem to suggest a different approach to schooling.

If university exists primarily for society, then it would logically behoove us to rank university degrees in terms of social applicability. After all, if we’re directing taxpayer dollars to the task of bettering society through the university, we must admit that the average Hollywood lighting expert will not help the country as profoundly as the average medical researcher.

Of course, it’s not politically possible to explicitly discriminate on such grounds, but if a student studying Proust and taking a few classes in creative writing gets as much taxpayer help on a per-credit basis as one studying for medical school or to be a teacher, the whole premise becomes a fallacy.

It also ignores the fact that Canada currently needs trade-school graduates more desperately than university-educated people of almost any discipline. If the concern actually were societal health, our university funding would be redirected to secure an abundance of plumbers, not chemists, and certainly not English majors.

If the university exists primarily for the individual student, we run into a different but equally damning problem: Why is it our neighbours’ responsibility to assist us in enriching ourselves? A citizen would expect no help if they wanted to take a pottery class, but can expect roughly 70 per cent paid if they want to study Nietzsche. There is nothing inherently different between these two fields of study.

If the issue is simply the availability of information, then the university is less important than the library and far less important than the Internet. Instruction is important, but it’s not vital, and while everyone has a right to read and learn whatever they like, they don’t have a right to a service that shoves this information down their throat for them and accredits them at the end.

University degrees are financial investments, some more sound than others. I speak as someone who has historically paid for school by working minimum wage jobs while taking substantial student loans, and I have never fully understood the indignant moral outrage surrounding tuition levels. Financial hardship, in that uniquely tame North American sense of the term, is simply not something worthy of all that much self-pity.

Your human rights entitle you to an equal shot at university admission. They even imply that university should be affordable enough that it is not confined to the ranks of the already wealthy. However, they do not entitle you to have an easy go of it. There is no basic human right that entitles a citizen to a communication lecture with little associated cost.

The modern university is simply adrift. Its faculties muddle on with varying levels of success, but the whole is wandering aimlessly. Fixing our universities’ financial woes will remain impossible until they can come to grips with an honest, even brutal, appraisal of their role in our lives.

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  • Brett Farmiloe

    Thanks for the credit in the photo. The photo also appears in my book, Pursue the Passion, available on Amazon:

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