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An End To Learning: How Canadian Universities Became Vocational Colleges

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It was a long time before I realized how fortunate I was in my upbringing. I don't mean my family life, because my father was an abusive prick, but the attitudes that were instilled in by the society of the day. Growing up it was always taken for granted by those I went to school with and myself that we would be continuing on to university after we had finished high school.

Not all of us had career plans, in fact probably most of us didn't, but it was only natural to go on to university to continue our education just for the sake of continuing our education. Most people I knew were aware of what was going on in the world around them, read widely, took an interest in the arts, and wanted to learn more about what the world had to offer and university was the place to do that.

As this was still the end of the 1970s and at the beginning of the 1980s Canadian society was still set up for people like us. University tuition was ridiculously cheap compared to what people paid in the United States, and each province in the country had generous loan and grant programs available for people whose financial situation wasn't the greatest.

It didn't matter whether you wanted to take a four-year B.A. in the Humanities or in Computer Science, everyone was treated the same and all departments had budgets equal to their needs for ensuring quality education for their students. Learning for the sake of learning was considered enough of a reason for supporting continuing education.

So it came as quite a shock to me to discover how few people in the world think that way and that even worse how more and more people were being discouraged from perusing the quest of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It's probably not a coincidence that I became aware of the first around the time I started to understand the second.

In 1995 the province in Canada where I live, Ontario, elected its first socially and fiscally conservative government. In policy, attitudes and outlook it was much closer to conservative American policies than any other Canadian government had ever been. The party elected turned out in fact to have hired many of the people who had worked with a governor of New Jersey helping implement the same types of policy.

What they called a "Common Sense Revolution" was a very simple and simplistic idea. Cut funding to all social programs to lower taxes and make a better climate for business. Everything should be run like a business, from hospitals to local school boards, in that their motivation wasn't to be service to their end users, but to meet some randomly devised bottom line that the government came up with.

For the health care system that meant gutting it of staff and facilities, with half the hospitals in the province being closed and nursing staff seeing wages cut or jobs being declared redundant. For schools, from primary to undergraduate university level, that meant funding for fundamentals only. Or in illiterate speak the three "R's": reading, riting, & rithmatic.

In order for an University to continue to receive the level of funding they were used to, they had to make their courses compliant with what the government dictated as priorities; degree programs that would result directly in jobs or careers. Instead of being places of higher education and learning they were being turned into sophisticated vocational schools.

As this government was only hitching its bandwagon to an idea that had playing out in the United States for a much longer time, and the rest of Canada has gradually followed suit, government policy in two of the three North American countries has actively discouraged people from learning for the sake of learning.

I remember being appalled that this was happening, but even more perplexed because so few people seemed to care. It wasn't until I met my wife's extended family that I understood how the government was able to get away with destroying the education system.

Going to school was of no value to them unless it resulted in a job at the end. The idea that someone would want to get an education for the sake of learning about new ideas and different peoples was as ridiculous to them as if it was suggested they live on bottom of the ocean or the moon. Heck they would have probably been more open to the latter than the former.

Of course once I became aware that the attitude existed I began to see it everywhere. The worst culprit has always been movies and television where smart people are depicted on the whole as social misfits, geeks, and nerds. Ever notice how many derogatory words there are for smart people and how few there are for just regular folk?

My mother has said on many an occasion that her father always said that the thing he was proudest about was that a poor guy like him from St. Urbain St. in Montreal Quebec (The old immigrant Jewish district) had been able to give all three of his daughters a university education. Not that they got jobs from their degrees or went on to have careers as lawyers or married well, but the fact that they were able to have the opportunity to learn and acquire knowledge.

My mother graduated from university the first time in 1955 and attitudes like my grandfather's were common. Now, fifty years later, a four-year honours B.A. is almost considered a waste of time by most of the world and intelligence is made fun of at almost every turn.

I'm sure that people could come with a million reasons for that happening, including theories like governments deliberately wanting populations to be less aware so they can pull the wool over their eyes with greater ease, but I think the result is more important.
Fewer people are experiencing the joy of learning for the sake of learning and how the acquisition of knowledge is in itself a reward.

Obviously some people would never be interested in education for the sake of education, and there's nothing wrong with that either. What's wrong is far fewer people are being given a choice in the matter. Thousands if not millions have been cut off from knowledge that has been accumulated by the human race over the last few thousand years and have little or no understanding of the world that exists beyond what they see on television or in the movies.

Not only is that potentially dangerous, it's also incredibly sad. It's even sadder when you realize that most people don't even know what they're missing.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://benefitofthedoubt.miksimum.com/ Jesse

    An interesting take on this subject, and your comparison to the United States is apt, but as usual, Canada has a unique spin on it. In the US, there’s very little government interference in Universities, in keeping with our libertarian conservatism. However, there’s still a similar effect: people being fast-tracked through University careers without ever devoting themselves to it or taking an interest in their education.

    In our case, it’s because the corporate climate has completely infiltrated the University system. Colleges charge vast sums of money, and even if you want to continue your education, you have to keep in mind an end-goal of getting a high-paying job and paying off your educational loans. This situation sounds similar to yours, with a slight, important difference: in our case, it’s not the direct regulation of the government that’s causing a change in university culture, but rather a big sticky corporate attitude, infiltrating even the classical domains of our once-liberal society.

    In our case, this results in acute social disparities. Those from decent families, those who can afford to pay for a “higher” education, make it through college because it’s considered so valuable… even necessary… by the rest of the society. Those from the working class, or those who don’t have any interest in plowing through high-priced college educations, aren’t just allowed to be respected and comfortable in their subsequent careers. Instead, they’re stigmatized because they “never went to college.”

    On your end, it sounds like you need a government that’s sympathetic to the university culture it used to encourage so well. On our end, there needs to be an equalization of opportunity and respect… people shouldn’t need to be rich to get the kind of education they’re motivated to earn, and (in a complimentary way) a university degree shouldn’t be the only way to earn respect for your job and/or your family.

    I’m already depressed that I’m talking about “should”‘s, though. How can we fix it? How do we start the movement?

  • klondike kitty

    Although I agree somewhat with Jesse’s comments, I must agree more with your perception of things, Richard. Here in southwestern Minnesota, college tuition has become so expensive it is literally beyond the reach of most area families’ pocketbooks, although household incomes seem to be high enough to eliminate most chances for young students fresh from high school to get decent college student loans to continue their education.
    In addition, the prevailing attitudes of local populations seem to be ones in which the student must seek some sort of higher education that will land him/her a lucrative job upon graduation, and god help them if they have any natural talents in visual or literary arts, because there are very few jobs available to artists and writers, let alone jobs which will enable them to pay off the thousands of dollars they will accumulate in student loan debts during their college careers. Larger and larger numbers of high school graduates are turning to the two-year vocational institutions which will teach them a trade or a skill they can use to earn far more money than the student who opts for a four-year liberal arts education.
    I personally mourn the loss of all those fledglings who will swallow their dreams of theater drama, paintings and poems to pursue diploma programs in auto mechanics, child care and cosmetology to appease their families who only want them to do well in this world. True education has died a miserable death to productivity and the march to the business beat of today’s American society of corporate control.

  • http://benefitofthedoubt.miksimum.com/ Jesse

    Actually, Klondike, I think you said something very similar to what I said. You just don’t make the same allowance I do for the students who genuinely don’t want to study liberal arts for four years.

    But generally, re: the corporate culture infiltrating our schools and breaking down their foundations, I think you and I agree.