By Rick Salutin, Toronto Star, November 1, 2012
Universities didn’t create the economic mess or jobs “mismatch.” It was created by governments, think-tanks, opinion leaders and the business classes, who demanded globalization and used it to ship jobs to low-wage areas — not just in manufacturing but in “knowledge” work like call centres. They broke it, they should own it. It’s isn’t a role that universities were made for.
What is? Two things, I’d say, especially in the undergrad, liberal arts years. Students get to read widely and gain a sense of what human beings have been up to over the millennia. This expands their awareness and readies them to appreciate their own lives while contributing to enhancing the lives of others. Plus they learn to think critically, which is important to functioning as citizens rather than social cogs. Universities may not often achieve those ends but it is what they’re suited for, versus spitting out a customized workforce.
It’s true universities have expanded democratically in the past 50 years and become “mass” institutions — usually said with a sneer in the current debate. But what’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t everyone gain access to a more fulfilling life and the kind of critical articulacy that lets them participate fully as citizens?
Meanwhile, who’ll deal with that jobs mismatch? Those best situated: governments, business, society at large. There are models, like apprenticeship programs, widespread in Germany, that get public support. Does this mean universities should pull back and cease being “mass” institutions? Not necessarily. Why can’t you have both: citizens with liberal arts training for its own value and who acquire real job skills, including crafts and trades. In Finland, for instance, people can switch between practical and academic streams during their student years. Doctors and lawyers get their years of liberal arts before their specialized training. Why shouldn’t plumbers or fashion designers?
OK, but how unreal and utopian is that in an economy where jobseekers are desperate? Well, consider this. Productivity continues to increase, through automation etc., while overall wealth expands, perhaps doubling in the last 30 years. Even without maldistributed income, it would make sense to shorten the work week, share jobs and expand most people’s leisure time. But you need an articulate population to discuss these matters, and an educated one to cope with the “free” time that would result. Expanded university roles make sense in such a light, versus the stupid, irrational patterns that now blight so many lives.
One more thing.
This society squanders tons of potential. Undergrad years are when the young can discover areas they mightn’t have known could exist for them: teaching, the arts, journalism, social work, entrepreneurialism. In the very limited university teaching I’ve done for decades, I’ve seen it often. A kid enrolled in commerce, science, whatever, happens to take a course in X and falls in love with it. One potential they sometimes stumble on is their own capacity for leadership. Kids of wealth usually know about this plethora of possibilities but others don’t. It’s immoral, irrational and dystopian not to allow everyone to discover these possibilities, for themselves, and for the sake of their society.
Salutin's argument, of course, not only makes sense, but pushes back on the public purse for release of more public funds for liberal arts courses, when the culture, including the political climate, is anally focussed on ROI (Return on Investment) as measured by the limiting numbers of both numbers of graduates and piles of student debt, linked to numbers of graduates who failed to find jobs of who had to learn job skills at a community college.
- With such disclocation in the labour market, and with a public need for informed, articulate and engaged public citizens framing and debating public issues, most of them much more complicated than those our grandparents faced,
- with more available information, research, links from file to file,
- with politicians who are, increasingly in Canada, closed to public discussion and debate of the proposals they are considering inserting into legislation,
- with a plethora of media obsessed with commercial ratings, advertising sales and multiple platforms for disseminating too much pablum in too few digital characters
- And when we hear Ottawa inside observers, like Paul Wells, being interviewed on CTV's Public Affairs program, recounting the words of senior civil servants currently serving in the Harper administration, "Just don't rock the boat!" as the mantra of that government,
- and when we listen to Question Period and the vacuous responses from government ministers, memorized or read from prepared texts, extolling the virtues of the government while ridiculing the question and the opposition parties as "stupid" or ignorant for even asking the question,
- and when we recall how few exchanges with the press were permitted by Harper in mid-campaign,
A caller, yesterday on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook, a recently graduated university student who has recently opened his own business, after serving in menial jobs for five years following graduation, chastised his peers for favouring Romney in the presidential election 'because he would make jobs more avaiable and accessible than Obama' as "selfish when there are so many other important issues as well as jobs that need public and government attention."
Such maturity and vision and selflessness in a young perspective can and will only come from those whose horizons have been expanded to include the larger picture, and we need more of them, to compete with the tsunami of narcissism and short-sighted myopic perspectives that are infesting our public debates.