University education: teach narratives, not hard skills

The quality of Anglo-American university education is eroding, and the Government of Ontario this past week confirmed its rapidly decaying state. With its rapidly ageing motto, ‘open for business,’ finally maturing, the Minister of Colleges and Universities announced that a long negotiation with Ontarian public universities resulted in a new five-year plan. Ontarian universities will now receive government funds based on their graduates’ employment success.

Lest the non-Ontarian reader’s eyes glaze over, this trend is growing across Canada, in the United States, and in the United Kingdom. It strikes at the soul of a university and the souls of university students now adrift without a unified worldview with which to navigate.

I could not be more afraid because I feel the passion for university education that once animated my studies now dwindling in an era where governments require quantifiable performance. My most memorable vote as a university senator works to this point. It occurred after an in-camera session where the Senate debated the University’s adoption of a strategic mandate agreement. These agreements are contracts between the university and the Ontario provincial government that set strategic priorities and performance indicators for each university in exchange for government funds. The University of Ottawa Senate accepted its strategic mandate agreement with a single abstention from my dweeby undergraduate self. No one voted against.

My abstention was at the time the subject of good-natured levity, but I think that it expressed the palpable apprehension that filled the room. Most members were career academics. The university was a home for their passions. I knew from some that they were uneasy with the idea of tying financial support to the university’s strategic decisions. A lay academic could describe this reticence as an alpha personality, one that brooks little to no intervention in scholarly work.

I think, however, that the old description of a university education in William Blackstone’s work still applies. Scholars (students and professors alike) collectively work ad studentum et orandum: for study and prayer. Prayer is so little-noticed in the multiversity, but it speaks to the passion for knowledge that might be awakened in every student’s soul. That passion is the education because students learn to weave narratives and pull them apart. No human discipline can survive without this critical skill, yet governments now insist on hard skills that lead to immediate employability.

Prayer connotes an openness toward realms of knowledge that are structured in expanding concentric circles. A medieval studies professor that I knew described movement toward this knowledge as a dangerous mysticism. John Henry Newman and others of the Oxford Movement tried to evoke this view by projecting the Christian God as the center of a virtuous and effective humanist education. We have now moved beyond this (and other) exceptional worldview(s). The university can only house multiple faiths if it publishes its own creed. Professors may have to temporarily abandon the certainty of scholarly production to speculate on the nature of their creed with a view to publishing a collegial expression of beliefs about education.

A university’s Book of Common Prayer rejuvenates each university far better than any strategic mandate. Strategy performs a university’s social role, but performance makes no substantive contribution to a student’s life, or to their university education. Prayer is instead a genuine vulnerability between professor and student, and between university and pupils. Nor does hyper-specialization: prayer evokes purpose in which each professor might find a calling. Callings, however, demand profession, and true profession requires meditation. Hence the need for collegium in that older sense of the word. Departments, faculties, and universities are nothing more than their academic officers. They impose collective rights and obligations, the most important of which is sustaining that common prayer—whatever the college decides that may be.

My alma mater, the University of Ottawa, was once an example of this point. Its Catholic and particularly Oblate identity informed its mission from 1848 through to the 1950s. Economic circumstance eventually removed the religious order in a two-pronged attack. The Government of Ontario systematically withheld funds and the rapidly growing professoriate did not hold a religious view of the University. The Oblates petered out and with them went a century of charism that had informed the University’s teaching.

The University of Ottawa is but one case: many other universities attest to religious foundation and subsequent secularization. We now conceive of the university as pillars of rational thought and democratic debate, and they are to a certain degree. Academics, however, now face the twin pressures of securing government funds and pleasing a restive, entitled student population. Universities and their scholars must perform.

History tells us that university education which moves beyond performance in some common spiritual purpose faces censure regardless of teaching. The brunt of Ontario’s universities have, for example, religious histories, and the need for government funds forced religious groups to cede charters to preserve their educational missions. The University of Ottawa is an example of a holdout. When its religious owners finally sold the university, they faced serious government opposition to a fair valuation of the University’s assets. The Oblates sold their university for $4 million less than their initial valuation. (That’s $32.5 million in today’s currency.)

A modern Canadian example of censure is Trinity Western University, an evangelical undergraduate university in Langley, British Columbia. This university was censured by law societies because it refused to acknowledge LGBTQ rights because its governors viewed these rights as contrary to the University’s religious creed.

Hence my desire to move away from established, religious worldviews as spiritual glue for universities’ missions. We nevertheless need a narrative that can be more evocative of universities’ ancient purpose to teach ad studentum et orandum because current concerns about accountability don’t suffuse teaching with purpose.

Transmitting knowledge is defeated by bare focus on learning outcomes. The prayers that are now more essential than ever must aim to recreate a collegium working in modern values.

Working to that end is a fraught enterprise, and one made difficult by modern universities’ size. A firm grasp of the history of higher education might help shape efforts in this regard. Knowledge, however, of that history also suggests that, at the last, the modern university might occupy untenable ground as fountains of knowledge. If professors cannot define their enterprise beyond strategic goals foisted upon them by government, their ultimate recourse may lie in smaller eleemosynary corporations, where shared values can suffuse teaching.

The converse view—and I make this observation as a young man who might one day have to send a child to higher education—is that universities without a spiritual purpose might not carry the weight and prestige that somehow still defines their enterprise. Higher learning that cannot teach a narrative and the tools with which to pull narratives apart doesn’t merit the title, nor can its sponsors purport to assemble all of the knowledge that exists without a golden thread that strings it all together. I’d rather just homeschool my lads and lasses.

On a related note, you might enjoy this film: