Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Allan Rock: President of U. of Ottawa confronts criticisms of universities, especially liberal arts grads

We are not simply a farm team for big league business, nor a feeder system for the Fortune 500.
Universities are not, indeed, trade schools, nor mere instruments in someone’s economic tool kit. And when it comes to our students and their future, our concern is as much for the person they will become as it is with the work that they will do. (from ‘A mind that is all logic is like a knife that is all blade’ by Allan Rock, Globe and Mail, June 5, 2013, below)

Bank recruiters  extolling the praises of liberal arts graduates, a university president highlighting the critical thinking that accompanies the search through the lines of Canterbury Tales, looking for patterns in Chaucer's thought and emotions from his delightful narrative...and then confronting head-on, in words that every reader of every respectable newspaper can not only understand but also appreciate, "we are not simply a farm team for big league business, nor a feeder system for the Fortune 500" ...both of which have become the pop culture's holy grail for visions of the over-hyped opportunities for young people. These are words that need to be delivered not only to the Canadian Club, but also to the Annual General Meetings of those very Fortune 500 companies, as well as to the conferences of high school guidance counsellors, and to the parents of all high school students across the country.
This speech by the president of the University of Ottawa is so striking in its insight, so courageous in its perspective, and so prophetic in its vision that it could serve as the university president's state of the union address to the board of governors of the university he has the honour and the privilege to serve.
A former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, a former Justice Minister, and also a youthful prankster who introduced John Lennon to Pierre Trudeau in one of his many 'former lives'...Allan Rock speaks for millions of us who have become jaundiced about the constant barrage of public chatter in all media, turning workers into 'tools' and labour unions into pariahs, turning citizens into sources of tax revenue, or alternatively 'burdens' on the government, turning highly successful social programs into  yesterday's pipedreams, turning CEO bonuses into the epitome of personal greed and narcissism, turning government's into bookkeepers without any responsibility for the nations culture in both the narrow and the panoramic dimensions, turning immigrants into abused, under-paid worker pawns feeding corporate greed and opportunism.....
Let's mark this speech with an asterisk, on our calendars, as the day when the narrowing, constricting and sabotaging culture of profits and dominance was finally and convincingly confronted in a pragmatic, humane, compassionate, erudite and articulate address by one of Canada's most in-touch thought leaders...
If this speech does not generate millions of alumni donations to the University of Ottawa (I graduated in 1972) then I do not know what would.
Congratulations, Mr. President...you have done your office and your students and faculty proud, without in anyway denigrating the technical learning that is also necessary here and across the globe.


‘A mind that is all logic is like a knife that is all blade’ ...(it makes the hand bleed that uses it...Tagore)
By Allan Rock, The Globe and Mail, June 5, 2013

Allan Rock is president of the University of Ottawa. This is an excerpt from a speech he gave to the Canadian Club last month.

Judging by the popular press and recent public pronouncements, universities have fallen out of favour. Hardly a week goes by that universities are not accused of being “out of touch” with economic reality and unresponsive to current job market needs.
Some have encouraged a systematic effort to direct high-school students away from the irrelevant university and toward community colleges – so they will at least have a fighting chance to find employment and live a useful life.
Meanwhile, the federal government and some provincial actors have pointedly provided or proposed additional funding recently for community colleges, but not for universities, signalling their view that the market-oriented colleges are the better investment.
The practical value of our professional faculties is rarely challenged: Medicine, Health Sciences, Engineering, Law, Education and the Telfer School of Management.
What about the Faculty of Science? Our critics may be prepared to concede that the skills of our chemists, mathematicians, biologists and physicists match usefully with contemporary needs.
That leaves the social sciences, arts and the humanities.
And now we are getting into grey areas…
How do graduates of our Social Sciences Faculty contribute? Well, psychologists are in high demand. Criminologists help us understand how to manage some of society’s most challenging issues. Some economists have gone on to rewarding careers—one of them even serves as Prime Minister of Canada!
And then we get to our Faculty of Arts.
Well then, there is the heart of the problem, you say. Our 7,500 students in that faculty are at high risk of irrelevance you insist.
But is that so?
The faculty’s departments offer courses in 43 disciplines. Many have a direct connection to careers in high demand. Geography graduates probe the effects of climate change and help plan effective land use. Those skilled in modern languages hold the key to global learning, and how best to acquire a second or third language. The communications department, by far our largest, prepares students for careers in growth areas like new media, public relations and communications strategy.
But what about the rest? English literature? History? Philosophy?
I can hear the critics now: quaint, narrow and entirely beside the present point, they say. In some circles, it makes matters even worse that they are described as “the liberal arts.”
Let’s look at the argument against the humanities and liberal arts – because that’s where the thrust of the criticism seems to land.
Let’s examine what these students are learning, how they are learning it, and what happens to them after graduation.
First, what are our liberal arts students learning? I would argue they are learning skills that will never go out of style – to be analytical, to weigh competing options and to communicate effectively. These are skills that will make them valuable, adaptable employees.
When an English professor sets an essay question on Chaucer, students are asked to mount and defend an argument, to sift through facts and analyze and interpret them. They are being taught to think critically.
This capacity for interpretation, analysis, and critical thought is at the heart of a liberal arts education and fundamental to the humanities.
It is important to individual students, but also to our society. The Internet has made information of every kind readily accessible. But we sometimes seem to be drowning in information even as we thirst for knowledge. A mind educated in the arts and humanities has learned how to sift and to sort, to scan and to scope, bringing judgment to bear on undifferentiated information. In short, to help us in understanding what we see and read.
To quote Harvard President Drew Faust: “Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.”
It may surprise you to know that educators in India and China are turning to universities in Canada for assistance in adding liberal arts and the humanities to their curricula. They’ve built strong technical institutes, to be sure, and universities with world-class curricula in the sciences. But they want graduates who can exercise independent judgement, based not just on the rote learning that they have perfected, but also on critical thinking.
They know what the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore said so well:
“A mind that is all logic is like a knife that is all blade: it makes the hand bleed that uses it.”
At recent meetings the University of Ottawa had with some of the big banks, we talked about recruitment, assuming that they were primarily interested in graduates from our Bachelor of Commerce program.
But they told us that some of their best people come from the Faculty of Arts. They are looking for employees with basic, adaptable skills: emotional intelligence, good decision making, the ability to work as part of a team and strong written and oral communication skills: the very attributes of our Arts grads. Proof positive of market-based value!
But preparing our students for the job market is only one of our roles.
Let’s never forget that universities are important to society for reasons that can’t be measured on a tax return: they are independent sources of reflective thought. Their unique value to an open society is that they offer safe places for free inquiry, encouraging challenges to the status quo.
We are not simply a farm team for big league business, nor a feeder system for the Fortune 500.
Universities are not, indeed, trade schools, nor mere instruments in someone’s economic tool kit. And when it comes to our students and their future, our concern is as much for the person they will become as it is with the work that they will do.
And if we maintain that focus and produce graduates with the values and the insight to build a stronger society and a better country, we will surely have succeeded in our most important task.

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