Confessions of a University President: Reshaping Learning in an Anti-Education Age

By Marsden, Lorna R. | Canadian Speeches, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Confessions of a University President: Reshaping Learning in an Anti-Education Age


Marsden, Lorna R., Canadian Speeches


President and vice-chancellor, York University, North York, Ontario

Never has university education been as essential as now -- essential for business, for the national economy, for a shared understanding of our history and values, for the individual welfare of new workers. But the financial hurdles are daunting. Government support is down; tuition fees are up; students typically hold several jobs while studying but mortgage their future with heavy debts; richer U.S. universities poach heavily from the faculty on Canadian campuses. Canadian universities survive in a highly competitive global marketplace by working efficiently, accountably, and with a passionate desire to be the best. Address to the Canadian Club of Toronto, October 6.

Twice in the recent past you have heard about education and universities from the chairs of two of Canada's leading banks. Therefore, today I'm going to talk about... banking.

Banking, that is, on your desire to know about a sector of our society that is undergoing profound change; that is responding to the underlying demographic and economic changes not only in our country but throughout the globe; and -- at the same time -- is trying to preserve and protect the most crucial elements of those time-honored institutions we call universities.

What is more, universities are doing this in a cultural climate with the most instrumental attitude toward university education in 200 years -- a cultural climate that exhorts universities to focus on providing to their students those prizes of jobs and wealth over focus on an educated mind. Of course, jobs are very important -- they always have been for Ontario citizens. And of course an expanding economy helps everyone -- it always has in Ontario. But throughout the history of universities in Ontario, there has always been a greater imperative to universities to put highest priority on developing knowledge and strong values, a critical mind and a sense of social responsibility in students. By historical standards, ours is an "anti-education age."

The historians of Ontario universities, such as McKillop, Alexrod and Cameron (1) for example, have recorded the priorities of universities in relation to the priorities of public policy. It is a continually changing balance, but when the citizens of Ontario today express their strong concern for education -- as they do in every public poll -- it is interpreted as a link to the labor market more than a preparation for life including the labor market.

But not all feel this way. John Cleghorn, chair of the Royal Bank, has often said that it is a tremendous asset to have a good liberals arts or humanities background which provides a rich preparation for other professional degrees or high-skill diplomas. And he, fortunately, is not alone. (And when [formerOntario Education] Minister [John] Snobelen says that when he returns to university, it will be to study philosophy).

One of the defining moments of my life came at a dinner party in Ottawa some years ago given by the Swedish ambassador in honor of a most distinguished member of the Swedish Royal Academy. The academician stopped the conversation cold by stating that Canada is the most socially inventive country in the world: you are the country, he said, that has created peace and economic stability over a huge and diverse land mass, with the greatest possible diversity of religion, languages and cultural origins, and have led the world in many areas of science, language learning, community development... Well, the Canadians at the party were having none of that. No we aren't, they declared, thus demonstrating one of the chief characteristics of the Canadian character -- a strong desire to deny our achievements, successes, and downright genius as a country!

We are socially inventive. We have invented a type of university that combines both the ancient and honored traditions of learning, the creation and exploration of knowledge, with the preparation of young Canadians, and more recently older Canadians, for the community and the labor market. …

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