When I graduated with my first degree in the early 1970s, I didn’t think that I would get a great job. In fact, the joke at the time was that with an Honours BA in psychology (or any comparable undergraduate degree) I was qualified to get a job where my most complex task would be to ask "Would you like fries with that?"
I relate that story because as a baby boomer, I was part of the last 20th century’s first wave of students to contribute to what has been called more recently "the massification of university education."
I think that it is important to point out because as I write, I have just read an Oct. 5 special feature in the Globe and Mail on the purpose of a university education and the need to reinvent this purpose for the 21st century.
Is a university degree intended for economic and commercial utility or for a guided tour of the inherent value of becoming learned? One of Brandon University’s students, Carissa Taylor, is quoted in the article as saying the latter while expressing worry about the former.
Back in the 1970s, I made a number of decisions in the first few months after I graduated.
I got married to an improbable life partner (bad idea), went to Europe for an extended period (good idea), came home and accepted the first job I successfully competed for (extremely bad idea) and then returned to university to study for the second of four university degrees that I would ultimately achieve (best idea of the lot).
All of these choices were fairly predictable, but returning to university for another degree was not as common then as it is now.
The reasons for doing so were not mysterious. I couldn’t stand my job, loathed the lack of quality in my everyday experience, wasn’t making enough money for the kind of life I aspired to have and, despite being a vociferous reader, was living a dreary life with no intellectual satisfaction.
During my first university experience, many of my professors were not particularly talented teachers (there were a few notable exceptions), but I learned a great deal. This continued to be my educational experience through the four degrees that I acquired.
Throughout this entire period, and indeed, throughout the history of ideas, intellectuals and laypersons questioned the idea and the purpose of a university. I read the books that were popular during my first degree and over the years since then I have continued to read much that has been written about the purpose of a university.
I have come to the conclusion that there was never a utopian time when students received an ideal, learned experience that was inherently intellectually fulfilling or strategically designed to prepare graduates perfectly attuned for either intellectual or commercial success.
According to scholars who have written about such things, in the early days of Harvard University, for example, professors taught what they wanted to and what they knew about.
There was no great fount of wisdom from which all students sipped. Students would learn some Greek, some theology, maybe some Latin, some Classics and whatever else might be on offer.
In the early days of Oxford and Cambridge, if you were poor but genteel, you could become a clergyman. Otherwise, you were wealthy and would hopefully know more after you left university than when you began.
Today universities still teach the classic areas of study.
As well, many professions that previously were primarily taught through internships and applied experience are also part of the subject areas of university. I know that studying philosophy — which I did for three of my four degrees — was never intended to give me a trade.
In fact, the Canadian Philosophical Association sent students in my generation letters telling us this. I guess they thought that even if we were sufficiently intelligent to master the subject, we were too stupid to recognize that there hadn’t been much call for peripatetic philosophers since the time of Aristotle.
I went into debt to study with student loans and worked part-time throughout my studies. Many students continue to do that today and many students carry large debt loads to study in state subsidized universities in Canada and in other parts of the world.
Choosing debt for an educational system that doesn’t guarantee that the recipient of the education can find employment that interests her or him, advantages her or his material well-being or guarantees a leadership role in society seems particularly suspect these days.
University as a system of education for the masses requires either enormous resources from the state or very deep, private pockets. Some argue that universities were never intended for mass education. Those people are generally criticized as elitists who cannot appreciate that everyone should have at least access to an education.
Others argue that university education is uniquely designed to be a vehicle of democratization and that all should be able to experience this exposure to ideas that are necessary for civil society.
Fortunately, probably, human beings have no one purpose. They are complex thinking and feeling entities with multiple purposes.
To expect the institutions of higher education that persons have created to have one purpose is misguided. To think that there is some fix — some re-calibration — that can determine a smarter, more focused, more job-ready graduate misses the point because there is not and never was such a purpose.
To suppose that investment in post-secondary education by the state through taxation is consequently a waste of money is to seriously diminish the value of the multiple products of university education that are afforded to millions of people around the world who study at such institutions.
There is no guarantee that the products of the education will serve to make a better world, principally because there is no consensus of opinion of what such a world would even look like.
But think for a moment at all the things that universities do. They produce nurses and doctors, engineers and teachers, artists and art historians, pharmacists and pianists and many, many other professionals.
They raise a number of people from positions of poverty to middle-class or wealthy standards of living.
In some, they create a passion for social justice and careers that are paths from such passion, whether those are lived in non-profit organizations, legal professions, or advocacy.
Graduates may be honorable or villains, but it was ever thus with human nature in its essence.
There may be one uniquely human trait that in itself justifies the continuance of university education as it exists today — it has always been and continues to be human to inquire about the nature of things. Whether you are Anaxagoras trying to understand the movement of the stars or a small child trying to figure out where the light goes when you turn off the switch, human beings seek after meaning and understanding in the world.
Socrates asked, ‘What is a good society?’— a question that we continue to inquire about. If there is any essential nature in the plasticity of human thought and action, it is a desire to understand. This is not a unitary end in itself for universities any more than it is for human beings. Universities are uniquely human places for the pursuit of meaning and understanding, sometimes serving pragmatic and strategic purposes and sometimes as ends in themselves.
» Deborah C. Poff, Ph.D., is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. She has a regular monthly column in the Saturday Sun, but asked for extra space this week.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 9, 2012