In 1953 Hilda Neatby, a historian at the University of Saskatchewan, wrote So Little for the Mind: An Indictment of Canadian Education. A generation later, the Great Brain Robbery appeared, written by two friends, Jack Granatstein and David Bercuson. A couple of years ago Ben Ginsberg wrote The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University. Even more recently some Australians weighed in with Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education.
So far as I know, no one has written a book called “The University Has Never Been Better.” Which raises an interesting question: are universities across the land now staffed and run by the undead?
According to a recent “engagement survey” conducted at the University of Calgary, nothing could be further from the truth. 51 per cent of the Faculty of Arts who answered 85 multiple-choice questions and two open-ended ones produced results that were reported to be “very positive.” Good to know.
In this exercise, “engagement” is described as loyalty to the organization combined with “discretionary effort,” which is left undefined. The result of good “organizational citizenship behaviour” and “extra effort” is the delivery of a “super performance.” Super-duper performances can now be anticipated because the Faculty of Arts has recently appointed an Assistant Dean dealing with Student Engagement.
U of C also developed an “engagement model” based on (among other things) clear and promising direction, confidence in leaders, and image and reputation.
But more than engagement is needed. Accordingly, we have the opportunity to take part in the Respect in the Workplace program. Although only 41 per cent of faculty and staff took part, the Academic Vice-President announced “some wonderful learnings are being uncovered” by it.
Faculty have been encouraged to take Lifestyle Planning workshops and learn how to be a “no-impact Calgarian.” On the gender front, the university is looking to establish “gender neutral” washrooms and, I have heard, the “Sex and Gender Wellness Week Workshop,” featuring “a guide to women’s orgasm” was an earth-moving success.
Such surveys and performance-enhancing workshops evoke zombie imagery precisely because they extinguish the life of the mind. Not image and reputation, not “wonderful learnings” not even skills or the building of character, but simple intellectual excitement and its unique pleasure are what the university, including the U of C, is supposed to be about.
Avoidance of brain robberies, petrified campuses, along with zombies in the academy was once the task of a liberal education, so called because it liberated students from received opinion, prejudice, and convention. But liberal education has largely been eclipsed.
Liberal education is not for everyone. In an era of mass training, it appears fatally elitist. It is incomprehensible to otherwise intelligent persons trained in vocational schools –law, medicine, and engineering. Worst of all, there is no way to increase productivity, scale or achieve ever-ascending metrics.
Moore’s Law describes exponential improvements in computing power (and declining prices), but there is no Moore’s Law for understanding a sonnet of Shakespeare. It takes as long to recite today as it did 200 years ago. A seminar can handle a dozen or so students with no IT or e-learning solution to expand the numbers.
So, what is to be done?
Here is a modest proposal. The U of C has been very successful at raising money for the vocational schools. Henceforth 5 per cent of every donation over $1M is to be allocated to the discretionary benefit to each of the faculties of Arts and Science. That’s where what’s left of liberal education is conveyed to our students.
It may be the last chance to postpone the zombie apocalypse in higher education.
Barry Cooper is still a Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary.