UAUBUC x 2: A Comment on the Globe and Mail Series on Universities

Through the past couple of weeks, the Globe and Mail newspaper has been running a special series of articles about Canadian universities–none of which, at least as of today,  have been by Margaret Wente, although Wente was back on October 11, after an absence of two weeks, with a column about US politics, to which she appended a short apology about the ‘plagiarism’ issue.  (It’s good to see Wente back!)

Readers of the articles have been invited to comment in a special comment section on the Globe’s website, and I considered it.   But, after checking out the comment section and seeing the myriad of comments there, I feared anything I said there would get lost in the slew of words and varying opinions.  Besides, what I had to say was more substantial than the comment section would allow. This post therefore comprises my ‘comment’, not just about one article but, rather, in very general terms, about the series of articles as a whole.  My comment consists of both words and pictures–the inclusion of the latter being another advantage of commenting here and not on the Globe’s site.

The uppermost of the two above pictures is a god-awful mess, wouldn’t you agree?  That’s what happens when you’re tired after a long day at work, trying to produce a graphic for a blog post you want to get up as soon as possible, using graphics tools whose versatility can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help.  I was ready to delete the picture from my iPad; but, when I looked at it beside the original version, essentially the picture below it (the original didn’t have the oval frame around the lettering), and realized that the two pictures together fit in with what I planned to write about in my post, it seemed worth preserving.

A big problem with the series is that the issue of underlying philosophical change in recent decades within Western society–including within our universities and towards universities, from an outside perspective–has been overlooked.  In this period of philosophical transition, there are multiple basic philosophical perspectives towards universities, which differentially affect attitudes towards particular issues such as what should be taught, to whom, by whom, the methods used to teach, and even how university education should be financed.  Beneath the surface, to those who have given some thought to the issue of philosophical change as it relates to our universities, some coherence may be discerned among the diverse views about our universities presented in this series of articles.  But, on the surface, the articles as a whole are likely to appear to many, if not most, Canadians to be an incoherent jumble–and not very useful in helping to further constructive change in our universities.

The only contributor to this series who has addressed philosophical issues at all has been the University of Toronto philosopher, Mark Kingwell, in his piece published on October 13.  As would be expected from a philosopher employed in a university philosophy department, Kingwell puts forward a very traditional philosophical, and pedagogical, view of universities–although, interestingly, Kingwell does mention in the article that, even in his introductory philosophy course, he exposes students to the ideas of certain ‘outliers’ (his term), including Jean-François Lyotard, author of the highly influential The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Education, first published in 1979.  If one is familiar with this book, and knows that Kingwell also is familiar with it, and even exposes his student’s to Lyotard’s ideas, one might suspect that Kingwell’s personal perspective is less traditional than he is prepared to admit.

There are now basically three different philosophical views towards our universities, all of which have been represented in the series–and all of which are also present inside our universities, in varying degrees, in different institutions and different programs within institutions.  These three perspectives I’ll call here A, B, and C.  A book chapter could be written about each of these perspectives; but, since this is just a blog post, I’ll stick to the basics.

Kingwell’s perspective represents–or at least ostensibly represents–the A perspective.  This is the traditional elitist view, associated with Western metaphysics, that predominated in Western universities until the mid-20th Century.  Until that time, only a small proportion of the population attended universities, and attendees were almost invariably white males from relatively prosperous families.

In the second half of the 20th Century, significantly greater diversity among students, and also ultimately among the professoriate, led to a second basic perspective: perspective B.  This perspective may be summed up as being that of the “academic left”.  Although those from the B camp favour a more inclusive approach to university education than those of the A camp, it should be emphasized that members of the B camp do not question the basic activities conducted within universities.  Members of both groups are likely to support traditional university policies and procedures, such as academic freedom (including freedom from interference from those outside universities), academic tenure (or guaranteed jobs for life) for senior professors, the notion of the all-knowing professor as the source of legitimate knowledge for students, and the emphasis on research in the evaluation of professors with little weight given to teaching ability.

As early as the late 1970s, when Lyotard published his book–and when I was completing an undergraduate degree in Communications at McGill University–the basic dualistic and hierarchical framework of Western metaphysics that had supported Western universities for so long started to crumble.  Both perspectives A and B were now being challenged–mostly from outside of universities.  Yet it is worth noting here that, by now, there were many more adults studying in universities than there had been in the past, some of whom, especially those studying at the graduate level, had already achieved mid-career status in their professions, who personally brought the ‘outside’ perspective into our universities.  (I was one such student when I was doing graduate work in education.)  This third basic perspective, or perspective C, is the ‘postmodern’ perspective–with ‘postmodern’ defined essentially as it is defined by Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition.

If most Canadians now possess the C perspective–which is to say a Canadian POSTMODERN perspective–which I suspect is now the case, a reasonable reevaluation of our universities has to start explicitly from that position.  This doesn’t rule out the possibility of certain institutions and programs catering to those who possess minority A and B perspectives, but it does suggest that at least the greater part of funding for such institutions and programs will have to come from somewhere other than general tax revenue.

For the sake of greater coherence in the Globe and Mail series, it would have been enormously helpful if the series had begun with a basic discussion of philosophical change in our universities, similar to the discussion here.  But, better yet, it would be fantastic if the Globe and Mail publicly endorsed a postmodern position.  That could be the stimulus Canadians need to really get down to the serious business of reevaluating our universities, and reconstructing them on a non-dualistic, non-hierarchical, framework.

There is still time for that, even in the context of the special series, which is continuing for at least a couple of days.  But I’m not optimistic.  Generally speaking, the Globe and Mail seems too beholding to those who support the A perspective–or who at least who pretend to support that perspective–for any such thing to happen.  I wish they would prove me wrong.


Since I designed this blog to have three distinct kinds of posts–some about education, some in which I discussed A Few of My Favourite Things (or AFOMFT), and others that were about miscellaneous subjects of interest to me–I had thought that, after two posts about education, this third post in my new blog would surely be about something other than education.  For several weeks, I’d been thinking about including in this blog a post about my visit in late August to Crescent Beach–where the tree in the header graphic for this blog is located.  In addition to the picture of the tree, I took a panoramic shot of the  beachfront, using the 360Panorama app that I downloaded onto my iPhone shortly before the visit, and wanted to show off the picture, and beautiful Crescent Beach–where our family lived, right on the beachfront, for a couple of years when I was a young child.  But, once again, something related to education has come up about which I felt compelled to write.

At this rate, it may be well into winter before I write a complete post about Crescent Beach–or about anything other than education–so I’ll include at least a link to the panoramic shot in THIS POST.

The link is:

One thought on “UAUBUC x 2: A Comment on the Globe and Mail Series on Universities

  1. Shirl

    Thanks again Pam for a well written and insightful piece! I think you should send this to the globe and mail. They may choose to print it or parts of it. It is certainly worthy!


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