There have never been more educated people in the world than there are right now. According to Government of Canada research conducted in 2012, 93 percent of the Canadian population between the ages of 25 and 44 hold an educational credential (at least a high-school diploma) while almost 70 percent of this age bracket have some form of post-secondary certification. Furthermore, almost a third Canadian adults possess a university degree.
Given these and other remarkable advancements that Western society has made in terms of education (and especially higher education), I can’t help but wonder why so much of our contemporary discourse is marred by blind partisanship, polarization, and outright disdain for the viewpoints of others.
Our current political culture is, of course, the obvious example of this: Talking points and ad hominems have come to replace any semblance of productive dialogue and honest disagreement.
However, I think this example represents only the canary in the coal mine of a broader trend towards societal cynicism and closed-mindedness. Think about the mob-mentality and reactionary outrage that abounds on social media. Think about the prevalence of shaming, trolling, and cyber-bullying that occurs over seemingly innocuous events.
Now, by no means am I suggesting that our educational systems are to blame for these phenomena (the rise of new digital communications technologies, online anonymity, and the 24/7 news cycle have certainly played their parts), however, I don’t think that it’s possible to completely divorce the current apoplectic state of societal debate from the policies of the institutions charged with shaping the minds of those debating.
After all, wasn’t the thought process behind creating a comprehensive system of public education to nurture inquiring, thoughtful, open-minded, and compassionate human beings?
During my second year here at Trent I had a professor who was very critical of the current structures of our education. He argued that the lecture format that forms the backbone of most of today’s university courses has led to the rise of an educational experience based largely upon individual production, consumption, and regurgitation instead of interaction and collaborative scholarship.
In the lecture system, he said, students are told to consume the course material and produce papers that either regurgitate or criticize that material. The relationship between the teacher and the student is to be minimal and there is little, if any, space created for meaningful dialogue between peers.
In order to rebel against what he saw as a flawed format, this professor’s classes were based entirely around relationships and interaction. Instead of lecturing at us he spent class time fostering discussion, and questioning us about our own experiences and how they related to the course material.
In this class I got to know my teacher and my peers on a personal level and, more importantly, I was able to appreciate first-hand the value of conducting discussions and disagreements with an open mind and in a way that was respectful, honest, and above all truly productive. Unfortunately, this class proved to be the exception to the rule as I found that many classes here at Trent are structured in ways that actually hinder this type of productive interaction.
What is frustrating is that this experience seems to be getting rarer as governments increasingly treat the education system, from primary schools to universities, as a mechanisms of the consumption economy. The result has been an increasing emphasis on credentials and validation at the expense of the quality of a student’s individual education experience. It seems to me that this is a fact that is hampering not only the intellectual, but the social growth of young people worldwide.
Here at Trent, this trend has been manifested in the slow erosion of small group learning and the collegiate communities, both of which used to be considered foundational pillars of this institution. However, there are some positive signs that the school is once again taking baby steps back towards creating a more wholesome educational experience for students.
The college restructuring that happened at the start of the year, while not ideal, is at least proof that the administration is starting to notice the value of Trent’s colleges as spaces of learning. Further, there is ongoing talk withing the administration of at least slowing future enrolment growth, which will hopefully preserve the few features of small group teaching we have left.
On a broader scale I hope that we, as a society, can collectively recognize that what is good for business and good for education are not always the same thing. That alone won’t improve the level of social discourse but it would be a good start.