Local scholar confronts threat to ideal of university

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 18, 2008

So, just what is university all about? Good thinking? Getting a degree so you can get a better-paying job? “A fountain of knowledge where students come to drink”?

Cochrane coffee companion Dr. Anne Moore, a member of the humanities faculty of the University of Calgary, spoke convincingly on “The Ideal of the University” June 13 at the wrap-up session of the eighth season of the Cochrane Ideas Society, an informal monthly discussion group that considers topics from across the whole range of arts and sciences.

Anne has distinguished herself in recent years for her personal, student-focused approach to learning in what is increasingly viewed as an impersonal institutional environment. In 2006 she was awarded the Fortress Press Prize for Innovative Teaching in an Undergraduate Setting in North America. She was subsequently presented with the University of Calgary Students’ Union Teaching Excellence Award: Faculty of Humanities 2007, an honour for which she was nominated by the students themselves.

Her thoughts on the ideal of the university bear careful attention. (“University,” in Anne’s presentation, refers to “an institution of higher education and research which issues academic degrees at all levels – bachelor, master and doctorate.”)

While acknowledging recent views of the university to the contrary, she aligns herself most closely with the classic models reflective of Plato’s Academy, the medieval Madrasahs, and the universities of Constantinople, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, at their founding in the 12th and 13th centuries.

These gave birth to two concepts of the ideal university: a place of research and a place of teaching.

There is also a third concept of the ideal university, Anne stressed, a fairly modern view that “sees the university as a place for specific processes involved with the development of students as individuals and members of society and community.”

“The university is society’s commitment to the passage of its young into maturity by providing a setting that provides both freedom to choose from a number of possible self-identifications and the challenge to master the skills of an adult. . . .

“Students, especially early and late adolescent students, need and deserve a place apart from ‘the real world’ for their initiation into adult thoughts and concerns.”

This is about “learning associated with teaching informed by research,” she said.

Seen in this light, “the academe’s intellectual habitats provide a variety that is instructive; they embody the principle that the campus and society should be a multiculture rather than a monoculture; how one can be rooted in tradition and embracing and experimenting with the future; and how one can engage flights of fantasy, while seeking a safe landing.”

These three concepts of the ideal university, ordered according to their historical emergence – as a place of research, teaching, and initiation of students into an adult world – are all about good thinking and responsible living.

But they are endangered by three other concepts aggressively vying for dominance in university practice today: the concepts that the university is first and foremost a business, a state agency, and an engine for the economy.

The university as an engine for the economy “is demonstrated with parents and guidance counsellors who discuss university education within the context of career options, to university students who move in herds to the professional faculties, and governments who focus on the employment of BA graduates,” Anne said.

The university as a product-oriented, bottom-line, dollars-and-cents-driven enterprise is obvious to any student today saddled with dramatic increases in tuition and related costs. Classes are huge; one-to-one interaction with professors nearly nonexistent. Vision and passion are sacrificed in the name of efficiency and expediency.

This is also obvious to professors whose academic integrity and freedom to speak out are compromised by dependence on corporate research grants and facilities development. Likewise, academics tread carefully in making criticisms of the state institutions that underwrite their salaries.

These elements of commodification, commercialization and intimidation are at grave variance with good thinking and academic integrity, something that troubles Anne.

As, I think, it should trouble any of us concerned about building the future around worthy values.

I’ll close with one of Anne’s favourite quotations. It’s from Pulitzer Prize-winning intellectual Richard Hofstadter:

"A university's essential character is that of being a center of free inquiry and criticism – a thing not to be sacrificed for anything else."

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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