Saturday, August 11, 2007

Survival 101

Letter to U of O students, September 2007
by Denis Rancourt

I am fascinated by U of O – the administrative institution and social structure. I have also been most perplexed by its students themselves.

I mean students are a special breed. They are educated and privileged adults who pay large tuition fees (amounting to half of the operating costs of the university, the rest coming from the public purse) yet they accept being told in every detail how their academic lives will be run.

I mean adult paying clients of a public service, in any other sector of the economy, would normally be defining what that service is: The students should be running the place, in consultation with the public (e.g., an elected school board of community members).

Instead, we have an unelected (self-preserving and self-named) corporate executive, decorated with a necklace of congratulatory committees, making every decision about student campus lives.

That’s right; the university is a legal corporation, administratively independent from the Ministry of Education, run by corporate executives. All committees are purely consultative. The Senate is mainly staffed by subservient (and amazingly silent) professors and the Board of Governors (the BOG) is mainly populated by representatives of the university’s corporate allies. Both chambers simply vote yes to the President’s recommendations. To my knowledge, no executive recommendation has ever been overturned or even consequentially delayed in my 21 years here.

Go and see for yourselves. Senate and BOG meetings are public. It is an educational experience. (The BOG free food is better than cafeteria fare.)

OK, so how can we understand this remarkable phenomenon of adult students who agree to pay in order to be tortured with curricula that are aimed at creating obedient employees rather than at education? Unending deadlines, regurgitation on command, no say in content or methods, carrot and stick grading, imposed schedules…

How is this possible?

I have researched this question for years and interviewed many students and professors. I have concluded that there is one overriding reason. It’s called “a deal with the devil.”

Most students agree to give up their independence of thought and enquiry and to serve the insane system of due dates and senseless assignments in exchange for the certificate (the degree). Most students give up four vital years of their lives in order to be certified persistently obedient. This certificate, in turn, gives students access to a privileged position in the wage hierarchy and professional social status.

It’s a trade. But the certificate is not just a certificate. It requires survival and that, in turn, requires both adopting the ideology of the profession (for professional, science, and engineering degrees) and self-indoctrination to drive out the natural impulse to learn (often called setting priorities or time management). Your soul for a place in the sun.

But I have good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can survive with your personality, interests, motivations, morals, and principles intact. More and more students are doing it. Just stand up. Speak out. Confront. Others will join you. You will discover inner strengths and self-reliance.

The first step for many is to even notice that it’s all wrong. The next step is often death: Acceptance, cynicism, compliance, finding it interesting… Consider the alternative that is exploring and exerting your influence to change things.

You’ll know you’re changing things if there’s a backlash from those who have constructed and benefit from the status quo. When a prof or chairperson or dean balls you out for expressing your criticisms or demeans you or intimidates you, then you will know that you were saying something that matters. You will learn things that cannot be learned any other way.

Join the activists and enjoy your trouble.

Academic Squatting
Activism and Risk - Life beyond altruism
Disciplined Minds - a book about surviving university
Ottawa's Exile Infoshop
IWW - a union like no other!
Ottawa Cinema Politica


Dark Daughta said...

I appreciate your breaking down what exactly the university is - a corporation. As someone who passed through and kept on, thereby continuing to actually learn and grow, I always find it amazing to experience and to hear the reverence with which so many talk about academia and those who decide to "learn"/"teach" within the walls of that particular money making entity.

-Jay said...

Dear Denis,

I went to the University of Ottawa for seven years, and graduated with degrees in History, English, and Education. I did not attend university out of a love for conformity, but instead out of a love for learning. I met a few incredible people and a few incredible professors in what was otherwise a sea of conformity, where only a few people dared to go against the grain. My most utopian year at the University was my final year, in Education, a series of classes that required a lot of self reflection, and aside from one professor, there were no exams and very flexible dates for completing open ended assignments. During my stay in Ottawa, I went to protest, I organized political punk shows, benefits for Amnesty International, and I basically took advantage of a great city and tried to make a difference in my community. After graduation, I find myself doing philanthropy of sorts considering the amount of student loans I have accumulated. I work at a before and after school program, helping families met their child care needs. I also substitute teach, and I am debating going up North and teaching in a Native community for a year or two. I use my free time to be active, for instance I organized the first ever Zombie Walk in my hometown of Cornwall on Buy Nothing Day, I worked for proportional representation handing out leaflets door to door, and I write letters to the editor. I went to University because I wanted the time to learn and I wanted access to resources, and access to learned people. In many ways my learning was self directed, but some of the most important things I learned at University I never got academic credit for, but that is alright, because it is stuff that will stick with me for the rest of my life. The reason why I went into Education is because I want to teach, but I also want to learn for the rest of my life.