Almost every day, as I walk at my old man’s pace through the campus of McGill University on my way to my morning coffee, I am almost overwhelmed by the sheer energy of the thousands of students who surround me. There they go, I think, whizzing past, crash, bang, half of them talking to themselves (or would that be talking into a hidden microphone? Wonders will never cease), their earnestness above all being what most impresses me. I have worked out a small joke for myself: they are relentlessly in pursuit of The Knowledge, meaning, the accumulated Knowledge of humanity, the transmission of which, from one generation to the next, is conceived to be the business of modern universities.
To judge by the numbers, there can be little doubt of the success of these institutions, for we must at this moment have more educated and knowledgable people in the world than ever before. I spent some time this morning trying to discover how many university students we have in this one city, and it comes to something like (at a conservative estimate) 184,000, made up of 55,000 at the University of Montreal, 40,000 at McGill, 46,000 at Concordia, and 43,000 at the University of Quebec at Montreal (known to everyone as UQAM). These are amazing figures, and they probably pale beside those of Ontario, where the University of Toronto has 90,000 and York university 53,000, just to mention two of them. Then think, in each case, of the army of professors engaged in passing on The Knowledge to their charges. Thousands upon thousands of them.
No wonder the students are hustling and bustling past me, on their way, no doubt, to beat out the tough competition which must face all of them if they are to get their degrees, without which, it is said, in these modern times no meaningful life is really possible any more. All around the University in the city streets, one peers amazed into neighbourhood coffee shops, to see that right into the late evenings, every table is occupied by students leaning over the computers that are propped up before them. Hot in pursuit of The Knowledge.
And yet…. Perhaps one may be forgiven for expressing a slight doubt. If these universities are doing such a great job, how is it that by our human actions, the health of the very elements on which all life depends --- that is, clean water, fresh air, richly productive soil, biological diversity ---- are all deteriorating at an exponential rate. For all our brainpower --- and it is brainpower that the professors are supposed to be working on, increasing its effectiveness by filling each brain with The Knowledge, better and improved with every generation --- for all our brainpower, we have not fully grasped so simple a truth as that our very lives depend on such apparently insignificant animals as bees, or those worms and slugs that live in the top three inches of earth and are constantly at work transforming the earth into productive topsoil. Without either of these insignificant classes of animal, human life would go phufft!
It makes one wonder if the way they are teaching The Knowledge in these expensive universities is really doing the job. I remember I was myself in charge of a university class of undergraduates for one term. It was one of the most farcical jobs I ever had. There were 122 of them, sitting out there, waiting for The Knowledge. I depended on a computer to give me a list of their names, and I never got that until two weeks before the term was over. I know one thing: they never got any Knowledge from me.
When I was an active journalist, working in London, England for a Canadian newspaper, I spent a lot of time poring over a study of higher education, which exposed the totally class nature of the education system. As an enthusiastic socialist I deplored all of it, supported the idea of comprehensive high schools at which levels of education would be raised and harmonized for the mass of students, and excoriated the nakedly class method they had of separating children at the age of eight into those destined for higher education, and those destined to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.
I never had to suffer a university education myself, having left school after four years of high school, and gone straight into the work force at the lowest possible rung of journalism. That certainly had its advantages: I learned the craft by performing it, and have never really been a supporter of the idea that a university education should be compulsory, as it is now, for an upcoming journalist.
It is probably not the first time I have raised doubts about the university system in this space. But they have been on my mind since I read the autobiography of Peter Medawar (which I previously mentioned in My Log 534 on October 30.) He went to Oxford University in 1932 and gives an extraordinary account of the university’s system of teaching, which was by tutorials, with the ratio of students to tutors being 1:1. In this age of mass education that sounds completely unattainable. Yet I took the trouble to look up Oxford as it is today, and the tutorial system is still in effect, with the number of students to each tutor varying from one to four.
Impossible, one would think, in this day of mass education. I’m not so sure about that. In the richest nations in the world they keep telling us it is impossible to afford free university education to those who want it, or are qualified for it. In both Canada and the United States the burden of student loans has become immense. Students owe more than an estimated $22 billion, according to the Canadian Federation of Students calculation, and in the United States, student loans are said to amount to more than $3 trillion.
Unsurprisingly, in the capitalist world it is really only in the Nordic countries --- countries like Sweden, for example, have always boasted they have a capitalist economy and a socialist society ---- that free education at all levels has been offered. Communist countries like China and the USSR provided education free of charge, but as they have transferred to a capitalism economy, an essential element has been to put higher education on a fee-paying basis. There are of course, exceptions, Cuba being one of them. One of the major questions that Canadian capitalists should have to answer is: if Cuba can afford free higher education why cannot the far more prosperous nation of Canada do the same?
The original purpose of university education was to produce a well-rounded individual. But that seems to have gone by the board with the arrival of mass education. Now the emphasis seems to be on producing the fodder, in the form of trained workers, needed to keep the economic system ticking over.
This system certainly seems to have caught the interest of the generations just coming into maturity, those young men and women scurrying past me as they hurry from class to class. One can only hope they are getting what they want. And even more profoundly, one would hope that great changes should be underway in the sort of Knowledge that is being transmitted to them in their classrooms. The essential knowledge needed now is: how do we keep our life-support systems from being irrevocably degraded? I hope to hell that is why these young people are in such as hurry to get to their destinations. For finding the answer to that question has become a matter of urgency.