I have to admit it: there seems to be a gap between my generation and that of the hundreds of students among whom I walk every day as I make my way across the McGill university campus on my way to my favorite coffee house. These students are all hustle and bustle, especially the young women, while I drag myself along among them at a pace that two or three decades ago I would hardly have dignified with the word locomotion.
The reason for the difference is that these students obviously have a purpose in life, which seems to be to gather the accepted and accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humankind, the very purpose for which these universities are established. It strikes me as a purpose which poses more questions than it answers.
For example, are they entirely sure that what they are getting is in fact the accumulated knowledge that the human race has gathered up to now? And can they be sure that the interpretation given to that body of knowledge by their tutors is such as to set them forward towards the best of possible worlds?
Their eagerness and bustle seems to indicate that few of them can have any doubts that their lives are going along the right track, to which certainty I would have to attribute their relative lack of experience ( I first wrote ”gormlessness”, but that seemed a trifle harsh, and I do not wish to judge any of these eager young people harshly), an inevitable consequence of their youth. I am reminded of a world-renowned scientist in the field of the study of aging who told me that if he were one day to emerge from his laboratory holding up a file that he could announce held the magic potion that could enable us all to live to 125, “ any reasonable person would dash the file from my hand and smash its contents on the floor.”
If that is so, why are so many of our best brains working on this very problem? I asked him that question and he replied, “Because it is so fascinating, trying to solve this particular problem.” None of the larger societal questions that would arise from his success appeared to matter a jot to him. Multiply that big brain by the millions of big brains who are working on all these precise intellectual questions, and you end up with the best of them producing a bomb that, if human beings were ever mad enough, or cruel enough, to drop it on a city, would immediately kill hundreds of thousands of people and utterly destroy every building in the city. Fortunately it is hard to imagine any group of human beings whose innate decency could be so overcome as to permit such a disaster to be willfully administered to any other group. So maybe these reservations I am expressing about all this accumulated knowledge we never cease handing on from one generation to the next are just a nightmare that accompanies the aging process.
Hang on there a minute. My God! I know I have a tendency to forget things, but is it possible I could have forgotten that such a thing has already happened, not once, but twice? And that the group that administered the devastation was a nation that always prides itself on having formed the most advanced civilization on the planet, animated only by the noble cause of democratic free will and consent. I wonder if that really did happen, or if it is just something I read about in a book of fiction? It’s so hard to be clear about anything when you reach the advanced age at which things seemed sort of clouded over, rather indistinct.
Anyway, one thing we can be sure about: if such an event did take place, the wisdom of humankind, that very same wisdom that is being transferred every year, almost every day of every year, in our universities, will have decided that such an event never can take place again, and will have taken the measures needed to abolish those weapons from the face of the Earth.
Thank heaven we can rely on that wisdom that is the subject of all the study being performed at our universities. What an irony it would be if we were pouring so much of our resources into this knowledge-transfer, only to find that the entrenched attitudes of human beings, including that madness and cruelty referred to above, were to be allowed to run riot across the Earth just as it always has been in the past.
I cannot deny the energy of these young people, bustling back and forth between their classrooms. There are dozens of coffee houses in this part of town, and at almost any time of the day or night one can see that they are crowded with young people sitting over their machines, ostensibly studying. I make a point of asking what they are studying. Everything, it seems. Electrical engineering, said one young man from China. Chemistry, said a young woman, taking the plugs out of her ears so as to answer me. Feminist philosophy, said another. International development, another. Political science, but I think I am going to change to law, another. Psychology, economics, accounting, African studies…..
The accumulated knowledge of human kind whose study has drawn unimaginable numbers to these universities. Montreal has two English-language universities, two major French-language universities, and three minor institutions of university level. It is hard to come to an exact figure, but my most recent one is that the student population of the city is approaching 200,000. McGill alone has more than 40,000, of whom 58 per cent are women, and they have 12,000 foreign students from 150 different countries (the biggest enrolments are from the US 2435, China 2394, and France 1875).
So no one could deny that the youth of the world are flocking to universities in huge numbers. But I have to make a confession here: I am by no means convinced university education is essential to the development of responsible, sensitive citizens. I have always tended to regard the university as a brainwashing institution, designed to get people who will later have responsible positions in running the country to think within a particular framework designed to prevent major change from overwhelming our society.
Years ago, I was occasionally invited to speak to university classes, and I always began by saying how pleased I was to be back in one of those institutions which is “turning out the people who are making such a mess of running the world.”
Is that a fair comment? You need a university education, for sure, to design and build a fighter aircraft. You need a university education to build a battleship, a bomb, or indeed, all manner of “weapons of mass destruction”. You hardly need a university education to become a peacemaker, an advocate of conflict resolution, a conciliator, or a man or woman devoted to radically changing the world.
There can be little doubt that it is the schools of business management that seem to be the centrepiece of our universities in this dasy and age. An interesting battle was fought recently at McGill university, when the School of Management Studies needed new premises.
They set their eyes on a large building on Mactavish street occupied by the McGill bookshop. Suddenly, downstairs from where I live on Park avenue, many blocks from the campus, it was announced that the McGill bookshop would be moving into a recently-vacated ground floor space. The bookshop apparently had been displaced from the closer and more convenient building at the heart of the campus, to make way for the more important school at which the future managers of the wealth that is created in our society were to be given their marching orders.
I wonder which of these carefully trained managers will be put in charge of our national weapons of mass destruction?