Are universities just about the young and the many?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 25, 2008

There were several thoughtful responses to last week’s column on Dr. Anne Moore’s ideal of the university.

As you may recall, Anne spoke of three identities of the university at its best: as a place of research, a place of teaching, and more recently, a place for initiating youthful students into an adult world.

Coffee companion Pamela Showler, formerly of our Bow Valley and now doing graduate studies in religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University, was not entirely comfortable with Anne’s analysis. She wrote:

Although I agree with Dr. Moore on several accounts, I just wish she wouldn't pinpoint students as being young. I come up against this all the time. There isn't an age on this, is there? Otherwise I wouldn't be where I am today. I began my undergraduate work in my 40s and I have just learned there was someone defending his Ph.D. at 64 years of age.

I just finished reading The Human Nature of a University, by Robert F. Goheen (Princeton University Press, 1969). He was president of Princeton at the time he wrote this. He celebrates the university in its best light with a quote from Woodrow Wilson, who said:

"It is indispensable, it seems to me, if the university is to do the right service, that the air of affairs should be admitted to all classrooms. I do not mean the air of party politics, but the air of the world's transactions. . . the sense of duty of man toward man, of the presence of men in every problem, of the significance of truth for guidance as well as for knowledge, of the potency of ideas, of the promise and the hope that shine in the face of all knowledge. There is laid upon us the compulsion of the national life . . . . Our recourse for the future lies in careful thought, providence, and a wise economy, and the school must be the nation."

So, my thoughts to Wilson's words, synthesized with what Dr. Moore says, are, if the university is failing us, we may want to ask ourselves whether or not we are allowing it to. Are we acting upon our concerns or merely paying them lip service?

—Pamela Showler, Waterloo, Ont.

I asked Anne Moore her thoughts on Pamela’s letter. Anne said:

“Ms. Showler's quote was great. And I certainly do not mean to imply that university is only for the young. In fact, it is probably the mature students who best preserve the ideals of the university because they usually are there with the understanding of learning about their community, society, and the world. They are less concerned with the job training aspect. She is correct about us doing something about this.”

Canmore coffee companion Dr. Josie Wilson Emmett, recently retired from her Calgary medical practice, picked up on Anne’s concerns over dangers to the classic model of the university. Josie wrote:

Sounds as if Dr. Moore is a professor after my own heart! We have just come back from the home of Socrates and Plato. Where would the Western World be without these great thinkers of antiquity? Did Dr. Moore mention what the proportion of the population was that attended universities in Medieval or even up to mid-19th century times? It seems to be that a lot more young people are attending university now, and while this is good for the “democratization” of society, I wonder if it is one of the factors that has led to the commodification and commercialization of the “degree mill.”

—Josie Wilson Emmett, Canmore

I asked Anne to comment on Josie’s letter. She responded:

“Very interesting comments. Dr. Wilson is correct that the democratization of the university has resulted in the increase of student enrollment compared to the elite status of the universities in the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods. This did create one of the major paradoxes of current university education. We wanted an informed, intelligent, and critical populace, and believed that one of the best ways to achieve this was to urge people to attend the university. However, this goal of education for the benefit of society is now losing out to the concerns of job training.”

Then there’s something my Grade 9 grandson, Thomas, said recently in a speech. Although his words were in praise of the school he attends in Calgary, they also speak to the professionalism and personal interest that characterize Anne’s ideal university. One of the things he liked best about his school, he said, was that it had “teachers that cared about both their jobs and their students.”

And so the great conversation continues.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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