Monday, June 18, 2012

Hire learning

Some weeks ago I wrote an editorial for the Moncton Times and Transcript, about the ongoing student protests in Montreal and some of the reasons for same. I actually have no idea if they ran it. New Brunswick's media monopoly, owned and operated by the clan of beloved patroons that owns everything worth owning in the province, now has a fee-for-access model for all their newspapers. So I can't access their site to see if my free labour has been duly exploited or not.

Anyway, I'll re-post it here in the next day or so.

In the meantime, on a related note, I recently attended a gathering of alumni from the more illustrious of my alma maters. It was one of these donation-soliciting events disguised as a celebration of our storied school, steeped in tradition, from whose hallowed halls sprang so many people who, I dunno, did important stuff or something.

The real hook, though (aside from the free drinks at the Chateau Laurier) was the promise of a discussion on the future of The University. Given the goings-on in Montreal, I was looking forward to a lively discussion.

In the event, the discussion actually took the form of a panel of August Personages from the institution--the principal, one of the better-known professors, and a retired Member of Parliament and alumna.

The audience's participation was to take the form of an electronic voting device, with which we could answer a multiple-choice poll after each round of discussion by the August Personages. The results would show up on the screen after each round, echoing the time-honored academic traditions of Family Feud.

The first question had to do with the role of higher education, and whether universities should be training people for the workplace or teaching them to think and be enlightened citizens.

In the ensuing discussion it was agreed that the needs of the economy are changing so quickly, why, we can hardly imagine what it will need even a few years from now. This led inevitably to the conclusion that the citizen thing is more important.

Leave aside the central assumption, the either/or discussion of whether it's possible or necessary to do both. Presented with the question of training people for employment that is gainful enough to pay off the debts incurred in getting a degree, the answer was basically, "Well, that's hard to do, so it shouldn't be our job."

Imagine if you had cancer, and you went to an oncologist who said something like, "Well, curing cancer is really hard and we're not sure we can do it successfully. So I'm going to read you some poetry I wrote instead."

What I wanted to ask them was, "If a university degree isn't about training for the workplace, then why does essentially every middle-class or better job require one or more degrees as a minimum qualification?" Either university education is relevant to the job market or it isn't. If it isn't, someone should tell every human-resources department in Christendom. If it is, well, someone should tell these August Personages that if you're getting paid a lot of money to do something, you should expect that that thing will not exactly be easy.

Unfortunately this response was not one of the four options offered by the electronic voting device.

No matter. The audience, full of well-to-do alumni of this prestigious institution of critical thought and inquiry, were content to e-gurgitate the answer they were just fed. They didn't get where they are by asking awkward questions.

In fairness I should have probably stuck around to see if things got better. But I spend half my workday sitting around politely listening to bullshit. I left after the first round of questioning.

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