Back in first year, I was asked to write a letter to myself outlining all of the things I wanted to accomplish by the end of the year. I never ended up writing that letter, but it’s four years later that I understand the value of such an exercise…
To put things into context, I read an article in the final issue of The Medium last year by then-features editor (also a friend and colleague) Madeleine Brown, called “Why are you here?”. In it, Brown reflected on how often it seemed that students would “attend class, sign the attendance sheet, and never once check in”. She wondered why she seemed to be the only one who ever did the readings, never missed class, and actually enjoyed what she was learning.
We are, after all, paying $7,000+ per year to fund our tuition. And that’s not even counting the costs of textbooks or laptops.
So why do we bother? I guess it comes down to what we want to get out of it by the time we leave. I think we’ve all heard of the dangers of going to university simply for the career potential. (Where are the jobs now, anyway?) There’s also the argument that asserts that university will teach you how to think. But does it, really?
As a recent graduate from the English program, I guess I can safely say that I’ve learned how to think critically when it comes to literature. But what about real life?
Take last year’s strike, for example. I had received no information from the university about the potential for a strike taking place at the end of the year. I didn’t even hear about it from my profs. By the time U of T decided to spill the beans about it, it was days before the strike actually broke out. And the notice came after an email from UTSU that week about a possible deadlock. Meanwhile, U of T and CUPE 3902 had been in negotiations over the contract for several months. If they wanted us to know about it, they had plenty of time to tell us. But they didn’t. That’s where critical thinking comes in.
Even after the strike broke out, U of T refused to respond to some key questions about what was going to happen. When were the two parties going to return to bargaining? What was going to happen to our courses? Would we still be able to graduate? When I tried asking these questions as news editor last year, I was expressly told that I couldn’t contact departments on my own and had to go through the Media Relations Department downtown. Worse yet, when I contacted MR, I either didn’t receive responses because they couldn’t meet my deadline, or I received vague, impenetrable non-answers that even the English major in me couldn’t interpret.
Another good example can be found in a recent article published in Harper’s Magazine. In it, William Deresiewicz spoke against what seems to be the commercializing of postsecondary education. He opens his essay, “The Neoliberal Arts—How College Sold its Soul to the Market” by looking at the mission statement at a U.S. college and comparing it to the text written on banners posted around the campus.
The mission statement is written by the college’s founder and discusses the mandate of a college to teach students to “think clearly and independently”.
The second text is made up of four words: leadership, service, integrity, and creativity. Kind of like what was written on our old Boundless posters. As Deresiewicz points out, the four words are vague enough to carry a wide array of meanings, yet the banners themselves don’t mention anything about learning how to think.
For Deresiewicz, the second set of words represents exactly what is wrong with postsecondary education today: it’s all about the buzz, and not enough about the learning. The flash without the substance.
That reminds me of how at the end of last year, UTM told its students that they could still get all of their credits—even for courses that had been shut down during the strike—despite the four weeks of missed classes. What are we learning about the value of our education? Perhaps it’s time for us to really think about why we continue to pay thousands to fund our postsecondary education.
In any economic transaction, the consumer pays for a service. If the company’s service isn’t satisfactory, the consumer should call them on it. So, why don’t we do the same here?
Perhaps it’s because we’re too busy not attending class. Or signing the attendance sheet and then logging into Facebook.
In the words of Deresiewicz, we need an institution “that recognizes it has an obligation to its students”. It’ll be up to us to point the university towards this obligation. And that’s something long overdue.