December 5, 1997

In this issue:

McUniversity: our worst nightmare

Principal, St. Stephen's College

"Don't sugar-coat your education!" That was Mrs. Jennings' axiom when it came to religious instruction in church.

We were sitting around the minister's house trying to decide how to approach the teaching of young children. Having suggested we might create an atmosphere of trust by structuring our lesson plan according to their needs, my colleague fired back that she was not about to change just "to suit little kids." They would have to get used to her style, buckle down and learn her way. "It had worked for twenty three years, and there was no reason to change now."

At the time, I admired her spunk and determination but shook my head over the narrowness of her pedagogical vision.

I suppose Mrs. Jennings' methodological paranoia still rankles my soul. I sense a similar, though much more sophisticated, inertia in our universities. We have designed a system of education that places heavy demands on students.

They must live within commuting distance of our classrooms. They are obliged to adjust their work schedules and lifestyles to suit our timetables. They are required to fit their learning style to a monochrome lecture delivery method. And they must squeeze their response to our teaching into an all too limiting and often irrelevant format-the academic essay or the true and false mid-term exam.

No one can deny the University of Alberta is an exceptionally fine university, but like other universities, to what extent has the model of higher learning evolved to suit the desires and ambitions of instructors rather than the needs and aspirations of our students?

It was with this disturbing thought rattling in my brain that I became aware of the University of Phoenix-the first "for-profit" university in the United States. With a current enrolment of 40,000 students and 47 campuses, the U of P has expanded to meet student demand in two ways.

First, it wants to have a classroom within twenty minutes of its students, choosing to locate near the off-ramps of major highways and urban arteries. Education at your doorstep.

Second, it adapts its instruction to meet the career demands of its clientele. Classes are often taught by well-educated practitioners rather than academics.

Consequently, course content tends to be more integrated with life experience. (Not all good education happens within the confines of a 20 page paper!)

All education is applied technology. Class times and durations are tailor-made to the constraints of the constituency that requires the specific course.

All right, I can hear the objections clearly. This university has reduced higher learning to the accumulation of techniques. The height of instrumentalist thinking, it leaves no room for the wisdom that arises from speculative and detached exploration of questions that run well past life's immediate demands.

Moreover, we object that a drive-through style of education misses the essential dimension of research. Any university worth its subsidies must continue to expand the horizons of knowledge. Medical discoveries and sociological insights do not drop from the sky like a fast food commodity. They only happen through the concentrated and consistent care of dedicated professors.

Models such as the U of P send shivers down the spine of academic administrators everywhere. Our worst nightmare. If we adopted that model, we would be turning our four-star restaurants into a McDonald's.

As an administrator, I have sympathy for those who are leery of such user-friendly education. But Mrs. Jennings' admonition still haunts me. What is the matter with making our education more suitable and accessible to our students? Is it possible that we have become so captive to assumptions of "academic excellence" that we have lost sight of the primary purpose of education which is to enlighten?

The University of Phoenix discovered there was a pool of people with a tremendous appetite for learning if the academic meal was served in the right way. Perhaps to refuse to offer our educational menu in a palatable manner is not only testimony to our intellectual snobbery, it is also evidence of an immoral spirit.

To read more on the University of Phoenix see "Drive-Thru U. By James Traub, The New Yorker, Oct. 20 & 27, 1997, p.p. 114-123

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