Thursday, November 3, 2016

Universities Are No Longer Normal

Hello reader,
Climbed any ivory towers lately?

I may have been open to having my views shaken up during my youthful campus years, but these days it’s hard for me to believe in change. For example, several times I have read in Canadian sources that marijuana is no longer the weak stuff of the 1960’s, but instead is several times more powerful. (And more damaging to growing brains, too) I read this, but then I have trouble retaining it.

Similarly, I have trouble with Clay Shirky’s evidence that U.S. universities have been getting several times more weaker since the early 1960’s. “Surely not!” I say. Yah, but there’s evidence. Here’s the link to Shirky’s essay. Scroll past his two journalism essays, down to his next "The End of Higher Education's Golden Age" blog post.

Apparently, what we in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains think of as a “normal” university down in the States is in fact confined to those few household names that we have heard of even out here in the west. So forget movies like The Mona Lisa Smile and The Paper Chase, and students being on a noble quest with intellectual talks over coffee about “life, the universe and everything.” Forget the TV show with excited undergrads talking about their exciting learning in the background while a sad Buffy Summers, the vampire slayer, as a nonstudent, enviously visits her friend’s college. The average real world campus is just not that good, the students not that committed. At least, not in the States.

In fact, my own Canadian degree is (at least) equal to a U.S. masters degree. This is according to my professors. They said they will attend North American conferences for professors of rehabilitation, where they find that, even if they show the course outlines for our degree, the U.S. profs re-e-e-eally don’t want to admit that our undergraduate program is better.  

What staggered me was reading how only a minority of teachers are real professors, and how only a minority have tenure. As a worker in community disabilities this disturbs me because research findings for achieving abstract equal rights, or even for such concrete equal rights as curb cuts for strollers and wheelchairs, require “speaking truth to power.”  

For all sorts of citizenship things, you need freedom to speak… and publish. A professor from the U.S. spoke to us at a “weekend” rehabilitation conference. I remember two things about him: First, he was courteous enough to use bar graphs, instantly understandable, rather that simply put up numbers that I would have needed to translate in my head. Second, I recall the story he told us about why he criticized a big institution for persons with disabilities—and what happened next.

Turns out the institute board of directors included prominent people, including a household name TV journalist whom I will not reveal here. Given that institutions are not a growth industry, I guess the hurt was to their vanity, not to their incomes. Some of the board angrily went to the State Governor and said, “We want him fired!” The governor went to the president of the university, saying, “I want him fired!” Who went to the faculty head, “I want him fired!” who softly, sadly replied, “I can’t fire him. He has tenure.” Just imagine if the poor professor had researched the U.S. occupation, intended for the purpose of “teaching democracy,” in Iraq.

So yes, even in this enlightened age, we still need tenure to protect freedom of speech. Maybe the best of us, such as those two 2016 U.S. presidential candidates, would not be corrupted by power, would never act or speak vindictively, but surely others of lesser rank are not so noble. (joke)

In North America, the broken trust between ivory tower and high school, as regards English marks, means all high school graduates must take a “bonehead English” test before the semester even starts. In Canada, this goes back to the 1970’s: I remember getting into community college just under the wire. Years later I remember avoiding a waste of time and money —they charged a day’s net pay for their English test! — by going to the registrar clutching a bunch of my student newspaper clippings.

At the same time, the old days of students dropping a full letter grade average from high school as they went up to the big leagues seems to have been dropped. And high schools now seem far easier, with far fewer dropouts than in my day. I remember just once in Canada—because it was too controversial—seeing a university ad campaign to attract high school kids with only a C+ average. (A boy and girl in jeans were bent far over, saying 65% saves you a seat!) Yes, but a full grade drop would put them at D+.   

My own campus used to be a three year degree, like in Britain or (I hear) like certain degrees in the province next door: The fourth year was added not to the top, but to the bottom, according to the Vice President Academic, as “a high school make up year.” Well. Can we creatively use that fact? Can we creatively use our intuition that many students do not go to university to  “get educated” or to “find themselves,” or to appreciate their time/space location in the world, but instead merely go to the campus to “get a job”? Can we creatively meet these modern needs?

I am not convinced folks graduating from university in the U.S. have achieved effective open mindedness, not enough for considering such questions. Too bad, because it is clear from reading Shirky that the trend of ever-larger enrollment and caretaking, (and ever lower I.Q’s) without ever-larger funding, means that something has to give. Seriously. Universities have changed like marijuana, and the good old days are gone, gone, gone.

Sean Crawford

~Warning: Furey’s column (see headnote) can raise your blood pressure. It has several links, but I still haven’t aggravated myself by reading any. Here’s Furey’s link.

~The U.S. situation concerns me because, as with so many trends, Canada follows along behind. For example, U.S. universities initiated grade inflation during the 1960’s to help students to stay in school where they couldn’t be drafted—but the inflation was retained after the conflict was over. Now, in Canada, I have it on good authority (not from the V-P) that a certain local faculty gives an average mark not of C, but of C+.

~I was part of the university chaplain center. We met formally with the Vice President Academic once a year. It was at one of those meetings that she told us about the added fourth year.

Here's from Tobias Wolfe being interviewed in The Missouri Review:
Two days ago, I gave an hour’s lecture on Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan nych, ” a very important story. Two-thirds of these young people are going to go into the sciences, in one way or another—medicine, computers, physics. They’re not going to be humanists, at least not by occupation. This is a chance to help them frame questions about themselves, to help them learn the habit of questioning what they do, how they’re spending their lives. And there’s no better story for raising these questions than “Ivan Ilych.”

I feel like I’m doing something in the world that’s a good thing to do, when I’m doing that. I would miss it. 


  1. The dumbing down of our citizens is taking place on college and university campuses all over North America. Also, these institutions are no longer affordable for the average young person. Have you seen Michael Moore's Where do we Invade Next? documentary? It is brilliant. While we are dumbing down our students, European countries are smartening up their's from infancy on. Many countries have free university. One European nation even bans private schools for youngsters and pours their money into well-run exceptional public schools where the children of the rich and the children of the poor get the same high quality education.

  2. It's annoying. I gather that U.S. citizens are angry about their secondary schools but feel helpless.

    According to essayist Paul Graham, the European universities, in stark contrast to the U.S., are all about equally good, as in Canada. (Graham prefers the U.S. system of "magnet universities")

    Presumably this is possible because Europe has good high schools, with no stigma for being of normal intelligence and therefore going on to a trade. In the book "To Sir With Love" the kids in their final grade are about 15 years old.

    When I was a boy it was common that European children who came to America would be a grade level ahead of their age group. I don't know about today.

    I am looking forward to seeing Moore's movie.