Adequacy or Mediocrity?

Our GTA veteran prof again brings things back into (historical) perspective:

Whether we call the state of grace to which we aspire “adequacy” or “mediocrity” is a small matter. Whether we’d be happy with a forensic accounting of the educational merits of our own colleges (never mind the entire system, or what’s left of it) might not be so small, but it is infinitely more frightening. Can you imagine whom the authorities would choose to lead such an inquiry? John Snobelen, perhaps? Or one of our ex-presidents?

No, what is at stake (besides such instrumental questions as faculty working conditions and wages) is a struggle over fundamental purpose. We need to know the answer to the question: “Adequate for what?”

At issue should be matters of who gets to decide what is taught, how it is taught and for what purpose it is taught. The colleges, we should recall, were established to provide an affordable alternative to universities which would combine academic (they called it “avocational”) education in an almost equal proportion to “vocational” training (the split went from 50:50 to 30:70 depending on the program).

The idea was to graduate people who had labour-market skills, but who were also culturally literate, socially aware and politically competent citizens. It was a vision inspired by the likes of John Stuart Mill. In the sexist language of the time, we wanted to educate “the whole man.” At my college, the basic curriculum was borrowed almost unmodified from the Glendon College program at York University. It worked amazingly well … for a while. Whether at my college or across the province, the colleges that did not undermine that commitment from the outset have betrayed it in the long run.

As well, the colleges were mandated to offer programs at the same academic level as undergraduate universities, with the single difference being that the colleges were to be more “applied” than “theoretical.” That goal, too, has been abandoned. Courses are regularly “dumbed down”, course objectives are routinely standardized (at the lowest defensible level) and curriculum is regularly turned over to the bells and whistles that accompany corporate-produced textbooks that are as death to imagination, curiosity and creativity.

About the only promise that’s been kept is to keep students’ tuition lower than their university counterparts. But, there’s a lingering doubt about value, and we may be irretrievably the Wal-Mart of the educational system.

At the moment, these issues cannot be engaged, because faculty are not a factor in the deliberations and will not be until and unless we achieve more than academic freedom, but also academic rights and responsibilities. Personally, I am not holding what’s left of my breath.

Still, without that objective, there is no point in discussing any matters other than the “bread-and-butter” issues of hours, wages and working conditions. As for management’s “philosophy” of education and attendant worries about “adequacy,” “mediocrity” and the like, you flatter the authorities when you say that they even have a coherent perspective. They live in a corporate culture where the game is to keep their balls in the air … never mind whether they are selling education, pizza pops, real estate or high-end tongue studs, these people are shils for a corporate agenda that even they do not understand … or much care about.

Us? I must rely on a plea made my a colleague many years ago: “Surely,” he said, “there must be a strategy more ennobling than a pre-emptive cringe.”

That’s what the vote to accept management’s “offer” was. It is past time (but maybe not too late) to reconsider what it is that we wish to do about it.

But did the questions of the mandate of Ontario’s colleges and the sufficiency of the education being provided by them — by us — ever once enter into a single media account of the negotations?  No.  So I think that as long as we limit ourselves to the “bread and butter issues”, we’ll end up on the losing side of the debate, since the debate will be framed in terms of money, not education.

And the only way to frame the debate in terms of education is to develop an argument of why the Wal-Martization of the college system is actually a problem — why it excessively reduces the quality (as opposed to simply the cost) of the product being provided.  But we can only do that if we can actually find convincing examples of why we lack the needed resources — sharing them amongst ourselves own community of educators first, and then with the stakeholders.

Starting negotiations with: “Here’s what we want” is a recipe for failure.  Starting them with “Here’s what the Workload Task Force recommended” didn’t entirely work, either.  Perhaps starting with “Here’s whether or not the system is doing what students and taxpayers are funding it to do” might get us somewhere more productive.

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