Where is the higher purpose in higher learning?

A lack of attention to the minds and hearts of students explains why Canadian universities are at risk of tearing apart

higher purpose higher learningTORONTO, Ont. Oct. 5, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Higher education has lost its way.

For those working in the system, this news is old. The list of problems is long – too long to detail in this short space.

For those on the outside, here’s the problem in a sentence: Universities have become “centres of excellence,” as many brand themselves.

The problem is twofold. First, universities, like car dealerships or coffee shops, believe they need to have “brands.” And second, they pursue excellence – or innovation or whatever is current – rather than truth.

Universities, among the last surviving institutions of the Middle Ages, are showing their age. They are crumbling.

And we won’t see a revival in these great institutions unless they return to purpose: to give individuals a place to search for the truth, rather than a place to search for a job.

I can hear the objections already.

The first objections originate with people in the academy who have given up on truth. For these people, no unifying or transcendent truths exist. Advising a person to seek higher things is now considered intrusive and old fashioned. Meaning has been privatized and society, like our schools, has balkanized and fragmented into ever smaller, ever more private interests.

For an example of this go-nowhere approach to life and learning, visit almost any art school in the world. You will find young artists working to create work that mocks art and holds the audience in contempt. Not long ago, I saw an exhibition by Toronto graduate students. One master’s student had “installed” a pile of garbage in the middle of the gallery. It is the perfect picture of utter meaninglessness.

The other objections to my proposition arise from the class of administrators, teachers and parents who see a career as the endpoint of a university degree. To these people, soul-building is a ‘value-add’ – nice if you chance upon it, but not necessary to obtain an education.

One initiative exemplifying careerism blossomed from the Council of Ontario Universities. To “spark a province-wide conversation about the future,” the council is surveying parents and students about what skills teenagers will need in the future. “Is it problem-solving, or communication?” the council asks in a press release. “Just-in-time knowledge, or the ability to adapt to change? Leadership qualities, or an entrepreneurial spirit?”

Asking high school students what skills they’ll need five to 10 years from now is absurd. And it’s probably a waste of time to ask parents, too, although they are paying customers.

Young minds need more than debilitating skepticism and heartless careerism. A student can earn a four-year degree without learning how to write, how to read, how to distinguish beauty from ugliness, let alone read history, philosophy or poetry. It’s possible for a student to survive university without anybody asking them important, liberating questions, like: Who are you? What do you believe? How does one live a principled life? What is the good life?

This lack of purpose in the minds and hearts of students explains why universities are at risk of tearing apart.

Students will graduate, on average, with $27,000 in debt. And with grade inflation now a standard practice, they are pretty much guaranteed a degree, as long as they pay their tuition. But they won’t have to think deeply to earn that credential.

This happens against a precarious financial backdrop. Universities and colleges, massive operations with huge bureaucracies, need constant infusions of cash to keep afloat. The cash comes via students. And so universities compete for recruits, lower entry standards as required and deliver what they think students want: centres of excellence and skills for tomorrow’s jobs.

That might be what administrators and parents think students want. But what do students need?

They need what the academy is supposed to offer. The same things young people have always wanted and always needed: an encounter with knowledge that is freeing because it is true.

Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. Robert is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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