On Campus

Ideals and Higher Education

There is a word for people who only measure value in terms of costs and benefits -- and it's not a nice word

Gary Mason, writing in the Globe and Mail, calls for national standards for Canadian universities that would allow potential students to compare and judge prospective schools. Fair enough. But what really caught my attention was Mason’s identification of the primary question that students need answered:

“How successful have the schools been in meeting clearly defined — not airy fairy — goals and objectives?”

What does he mean by “airy fairy”? The OED defines it, in the sense that Mason undoubtedly means, as a pejorative: “insubstantial; superficial; impractical and foolishly idealistic.”  So what are the foolish goals and objectives that Mason is worried we university people might suggest? Elsewhere he cites approvingly a report by the Canadian Council on Learning calling for “aggressive surveying of students…to see how well prepared they felt they were for the job market.”

Such surveying would have the benefit of being quantitative, but should such surveys be a principle means of evaluating the quality of university education? Only if the most important outcome of a university education is ability to land a job — which I would argue it is not. Even the CLC report that Mason cites acknowledges that there are more important outcomes for higher education than job readyness, such as producing healthy, active citizens.

But what neither Mason, nor the CLC seem eager or even willing to consider is this: what do we do about those  aspects of quality education that cannot be easily quantified or even clearly defined? Indeed, by insisting on clearly definable outcomes, all in the name of prudence with public money, critics manage to exclude from the debate the most important aims of university education. Spend some time in the presence of brilliantly educated people and these qualities become apparent: creativity, precision of thought, skepticism, wit. How does Mason propose to clearly define and measure these outcomes?

I suspect he doesn’t, because like so many, he sees higher education only as an investment that must pay dividends and must pay them in hard coin. Compassion, broad-mindedness, seriousness of character — these are not specific “skills” and so are condemned to the airy-fairy dustbin of academic frivolity. But there is a word for people who think the only good is the practical and financial, and, like “airy-fairy,” it is pejorative. The term I’m thinking of is defined by the OED as an “uneducated or unenlightened person; one perceived to be indifferent or hostile to art or culture, or whose interests and tastes are commonplace or material.” So how about this: I will stipulate that my ideals are impractical and idealistic if Mason will concede that he is a philistine.

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