Most administrators began as professors; so they share those professorial values of status. But administrators also have an even greater pressure on them. They have to maintain the public image of their universities in order to get funding. That task is largely driven by the standards of magazine editors, notably those at MacLean’s who churn out their annual and very influential ranking of Canadian Universities.
The McLean’s rankings are based pretty much on notions of what academics think is a good university. Alas! The academics, in matters of education, never had a clue – beyond their own status-seeking – of what a university is or should be. That left MacLean’s free to use the egos of professors to set up a pseudo-scientific ranking of which universities are best, and which are worst.
The reality is there is no such thing as a best or a worst university. Nor can educational standards be measured by counting how many books there are in the library, how many articles are published by the professors, or how much they get in research grants, or how big the average class is.
The reality, so far as the average undergrad is concerned, is that there is no significant difference between any two universities in Canada.
Our universities are in financial trouble because their educational goals are shaped by academic snobbery and ignorance of what education is – which is now made worse by magazine editors using pseudo-scientific methods. All of that has contributed to making universities the inefficient and, often, ineffective institutions we now have.
It was only when I started teaching university that I realized no university course I had taken from BA to PhD had ever, in any systematic way, taught me to read effectively, to write, or to think. There was an occasional hint along the way. The rest was just information memorized, marked and, deservedly, forgotten. Even at the doctoral level, my major effort was not to think, but to figure out what it was the professor wanted me to think and say.
A public school teacher normally has at least two years training in teaching – as part of, or in addition to, a bachelor’s degree. Guess how much training in teaching you need to become prof. If you guessed you need any at all, you guessed wrong.
That’s right. Almost all university professors would be, and rightly so, not permitted to teach at any level of public school. Their training is entirely in their discipline, with a smattering of undergraduate training in other disciplines. Most universities offer teaching advice and help to profs. But this is usually voluntary, usually ignored, and is rarely more than a few helpful tips.
Professors are shaped by environment that encourages research and publication, status-seeking, and ego. What happens in classes, then, is the that most professors do the only thing they can do – recite what they know to the class. The students then get marked on how well they have memorized the information.
That works fine if you’re teaching students who will be using that material for the rest of their lives. If not, the students will forget the information within a few years, perhaps within a few months. Way back, I have courses I passed in science, psychology, politics, Chaucer. The only thing I can remember – I think from the psychology course – is that researchers cut the heads off white rats. I don’t remember why.
All most professors have to offer their students is information. But a university should not be about memorizing information. It should be about learning how to use one’s mind. It should be about reading with insight, thinking with logic, organizing ideas, making judgments. It should be about intellectual humility, not intellectual arrogance.
When I taught history, I knew that not one percent of my students would become professional historians. That’s why I used history not just to teach about Canada, but to teach students how to read and write and come to judgments – using Canadian history as a way to learn how to use their minds. (Luckily, I had training in how to teach, having begun my career as a public school teacher.)
But, in universities, research is all that counts. The result is a drive to publish which in turn leads to mountains of articles and books of no great value, published for the sake of publication and status. That’s expensive because it means the universities are spending much of their money, probably over half of it, to provide time and books and equipment for research.
The solution? Obvious. Hire some profs to do research. Hire the majority to teach, and insist they be devoted primarily to teaching, trained to do it, and regularly upgraded. They teaching ones would, of course, teach more hours than they now do.
That alone would solve the financial crisis, and would make university something more than a waste of time for students.
Would the universities do it? Not a chance. Learning how to teach is beneath their dignity. For the most part, they don’t understand even the concept of teaching. And they don’t want to understand it.
Would corporate donors use their muscle to do it? They never have. Corporations have no interest in thinking people – unless they’re being trained to produce something than can be sold. In fact, universities are quickly becoming subsidiaries of corporations. The only nod they make to teaching is to assign awards naming Canada’s best university teachers. Most of the awards aren’t worth a poop because corporations don’t understand education any better than universities do.
Would we, the public, force them to do it? Not likely. Our own ideas of university are shaped by snobbery and by a general ignorance of what education means. In the public view, a great university is one that has a history of students from wealthy families, and with professors who become famous researchers. Even the memory of a dead one counts.
The solution to the financial problem is simple. It would also solve an educational problem. But we, as much as the universities, make both problems unsolvable.
Graeme Decarie is a retired history teacher who began his teaching career as a public school teacher, later taught history at University of Prince Edward Island, and then taught for 35 years at Concordia University in Montreal.