“Ivory Tower blues” and “What’s wrong with university” — books about the university institution



A University System in Crisis

By James E. Côté

and Anton L. Allahar




The (new) idea of a university


August 25, 2007


Educated citizens and democratic governance go together like the proverbial horse and carriage: They depend on and sustain one another. Without educated citizens, democracy is little more than a sham and likely a cover for elite rule. And without democratic opportunities and outlets, an educated populace will have little incentive or impetus to contribute to society.

Of course, not just any education will do. Basic levels of literacy, numeracy and civic awareness are essential. But society needs to develop a balanced system, based on quality and variety, that caters to people’s different talents and interests; a lingering elitism is the problem, not the solution. A functioning democracy needs plumbers and electricians as much as it needs business executives and political commentators. The university has its special contribution to make in this overall process.

However, to read these two books is to get the unnerving sense that we are at the edge of some deep, dark abyss in tertiary education and, unless we do something substantial and soon, universities, and Canada generally, will simply disappear down this bottomless and standardless drain.

In rather breathless style, both publications compile a distressing litany of complaints: mushrooming class size; commodification of education; holding pen for aging adolescents; overemphasis on credentials; escalating cost; reduced public expenditure; extensive cheating; dumbing-down of course material; disengaged students and faculty; poor secondary school preparation; grade inflation; corporatization of university administration; and over-protective parents.

These problems are real and genuine. But this trio of authors overstates them to serve their own (and their publishers’) purposes. Canadian universities have their problems, and serious ones at that, but they are far from the crisis-ridden places that University of Western Ontario sociology professors James Côté and Anton Allahar, in particular, suggest. Indeed, the neglected Rae Report on postsecondary learning in 2005 offers a less apocalyptic, but still grave, assessment of Ontario universities’ predicaments.

Whereas former educational administrator Jeff Rybak, currently on the board of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, offers an insightful, hands-on and chatty tale about his students’ insider eye-view and ways to cope, Côté and Allahar offer a stuffier and more analytical account about the failings of modern universities. However, while they are both very long on what’s wrong, they are, unfortunately, equally short on what to do about it.

The academic-lite Rybak seems to have a few more, and more interesting, proposals than his more experienced counterparts. Ironically, for all his concerns and crisis warnings, Rybak comes across as a fan of university life. In fact, the high quality of his performance in this book says much about the merit of the students our supposedly crisis-ridden system produces. While he, and Côté and Allahar, might say that he is the exception that proves the rule, this smacks too much of a not-so-subtle elitism that permeates both books.

While Rybak justifiably concludes that “the gatekeepers of the institution, and those most able to motivate change, are far too invested in the status quo,” two of those gatekeepers, Côté and Allahar, seem intent on abandoning the status quo, but only to go backward. They offer a nostalgic lament for some imagined Golden Age when “the old liberal-arts mission of the university … of imparting knowledge and wisdom” prevailed.

Côté and Allahar point the finger at a whole host of culprits: students, teachers, administrators, parents, politicians, popular culture etc. But professors are almost exempt from this charge sheet, being cast as victims of a long-running saga of declining standards, grade inflation and pernicious student evaluations. This is unconvincing and self-serving. Faculty must take a large share of the blame. After all, it is Côté and Allahar’s generation (and mine) that has been “at the gatekeepers’ switch” while this decline occurred.

It is not so much that “personal and institutional-economic agendas” have ruined the liberal ideal, but that those agendas, always present, have changed – sometimes for the better. While the “liberal arts” approach has important merits, it also was, and too often remains, aristocratic in scope and substance. If universities are to provide a good education, they must reject the view that there is a connection between broadening access and diluting standards. On the contrary, greater diversity will enhance the quality of education delivered and received.

The way forward is not clear or uncontroversial. But it will not be achieved by resuscitating the past. An educated citizenry needs a broad range of skills, aptitudes and interests, across a broad range of persons. Increased enrolment in universities is a way to meet that high-standard demand as long as

universities and the professoriate have the educational courage of their democratic convictions. “Mass education” need not be the inevitable oxymoron that some commentators and skeptics would have us believe.

What counts as a “good education” is more elusive than many think. Indeed, any good education must be open and critical about what counts. So the fact that universities are trying to do many different things for many different people is not in itself a problem, let alone, as Rybak puts it, “the problem.” Of course, there are better and worse compromises in matching university functions, social needs and students’ expectations. But the challenge is to mix the training with the education so as to produce useful workers and engaged citizens:

It is the resulting mix, not the mixing itself, that is the issue.

Universities cannot assume or be expected to carry all the burden. It will be important to ensure that there are well-resourced and broad-based colleges that share the load, as Rybak and the Rae Report suggest. However, the university should see increased enrolment as an opportunity, not a burden. A democracy needs elite institutions, but without the elitist attitudes and trappings. Quality in process and product are the key.

Allan C. Hutchinson has been in school for more than 50 years, since he was 3. He experiences all the blessings and blights of working at an elite educational institution, Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto.

Source: The Globe & Mail


University of Toronto Press,

256 pages, $27.95


And How to Make It Work for You Anyway

By Jeff Rybak

ECW, 208 pages, $19.95


What’s Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work For You Anyway


“When I entered university in 2002, one of the first things I noticed was that a whole lot of students were disappointed.” That’s the most important thing there is to say about university today. So that’s where I started.

I wrote a book about two simple questions. First, what’s wrong with university? And second, how can students, dealing with the reality of university right now, get what they need from their education?

The question of what’s wrong with university goes to some deep issues, such as government policy and social priorities. I touch on those issues, acknowledging their great importance to students, but this isn’t meant to be a political tract. Whatever decisions and policies led us to the institution we have today, students in Canada need to deal with that reality right now. And tens of thousands more encounter that reality each September. This book is for them.

The most essential problem with university today is that it has become, or at least it pretends to be, the answer to absolutely everyone’s success in life. Of course every student wants to be “successful,” but it must be obvious that we all have different goals. When this one institution becomes the answer to everyone’s everything, disappointment is inevitable. I’ll go further than “disappointment” and say that many students are downright miserable. Many are angry. Many feel betrayed.

This book gets back to the essential questions that every student should have been encouraged to ask long before attending university. “What do you want? Why do you want this education? What do you intend to do with it?” We need to tear down the absurd idea that university is inherently positive, always good for everyone, and never bad for anyone. How can that possibly be true when it’s failing so many students?

When students begin to answer these essential questions, and recognize their motives, they also learn to recognize that other students have different motives and different goals. And that’s fine. Getting more from university – the second aspect of this book – means that each student learns to focus on what he or she wants from the experience in order to get more of it, rather than more of what the next guy wants.

Like many students, I was disappointed with university. I was even angry. But I knew what I wanted from my education and I was determined to get it, even when I felt the deck was stacked against me. This book is for students who want to do the same. Yes, the system is far from ideal. No, it doesn’t live up to the hype and the promises. Now let’s get over that and talk about what every student can do – and needs to know – to make university work for them today, tomorrow, next week, and next year.

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