Jackson Doughart
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Students have only themselves to blame

The Cadre, 22 February 2012

The university is dead. And we have killed it. Though the institution of scholarship and free inquiry may appear to be succeeding in its expansion of facilities and wealth, the true spirit of the university has undergone a thorough process of etiolation, rendering it unrecognizable from its mythologized reputation as a center of unfettered truth searching. There exists no better demonstration of this decline than the attitude of first-year students to UPEI’s Global Issues program, a mandatory reading and writing course for all undergraduates.

I took the Global Issues course three years ago, when the program was still in its infancy. Though the class was not all bad (it was where I was first made to read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”), I felt that it was a bird course that failed to stimulate my interest in any particular “global issue.” My instructor tackled straw-man topics, appealed to our existing biases instead of challenging them, and assigned banal essay subjects. The course material consisted of an expensive and cobbled-together binder of photocopies, and many of the sections were taught by unspecialized and inexperienced professors. I could have done without it.

By virtue of having a younger sister who enrolled in the course this fall, I have had some exposure to the improvements made to the program. There is now a proper text, which I’ve had the advantage of reading for myself, and which includes short readings from a wide selection of contemporary non-fiction writers. Students have the opportunity to attend guest lectures (the fall session included a visit from the former parliamentarian and diplomat Lloyd Axeworthy) which supplement the existing list of speakers, populated by members of UPEI’s faculty who have actually studied the course subjects in their own research. Perhaps most importantly, the course has identifiable themes, such the globalization debate, the challenges posed by technology, the role and limits of science, and the clash between faith and reason.

What I find most impressive is the way in which the set of lectures is organized. Instead of having a single person explain both sides of a given issue, students are able to hear advocates of both sides argue in favor of their position in a kind of debate format, where speakers respond to the assertions of their opponents. Next, the students deliberate among themselves in group meetings before having a chance to pose questions to the speakers. This makes the learning process interactive and highly productive for all students who wish to profit from it.

The problem, it appears, is that most of the students have no intention of using this well-organized program to their advantage. They wish that the course would not require them to read or write, and that they could breeze through it without effort as they did in high school. But first-year university is not Grade 13. It is, or at least should be, a rigorous process of initiation to the academy, an institution that rewards dedication and weeds out lethargy, preferably in a heartless and uncompromising manner.

Yet these ingrates have the nerve to complain about the expectations of the program, as if they were customers receiving a service from the university. This illustration might be legitimate if the “service” in question were an experience of enlightenment and culturation, but this is certainly not how they feel. Rather, university is, at best, a way of getting a job one day, or more commonly, a four-year extension of adolescence in which one can avoid the responsibilities of adulthood, often at the expense of one’s parents.

Too many of today’s university students are culturally illiterate and intellectually incurious. This is evidenced by the difficulty that any professor most certainly has in finding a widely-understood literary reference among his students. With the exception of The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and perhaps The Great Gatsby, it is improbable that one could depend upon students to have read anything at all. Perhaps more concerningly, students are unlikely to value knowledge of such things. This is a cultural disgrace which falls mostly upon the shoulders of parents, teachers, and wider society, but this does not exempt the students themselves from their own lack of discipline.

What these students fail to understand is that the opportunity to attend university is a privilege from which most of the world’s young adults are restricted. Moreover, they do not appreciate that they are the products of a civilization whose values are underscored by respect for the written word, even if they have no personal interest in such work themselves. Whether they realize it or not, their own customs and attitudes are the result of various slow and laborious advances in culture, many of which were made through the efforts of people who could never have imaged the luxuries that today’s students enjoy.

I think I was most appalled when I attended a handful of Global Issues lectures during the previous semester. About 90 percent of the students had their laptops open, using Facebook or playing games while the lecturer delivered a well-prepared presentation for their benefit. This shows everything that one needs to know about their attitude toward the university. To them, this place is some kind of joke that requires little to no effort on their part and that contributes to a warped and undeserved sense of entitlement.

To put it lightly, their irreverence is both a profane and profound insult, not only to their fellow students, to the professors who teach them, and to the university as a whole, but specifically to Ron Srigley, the program director. Though I know him only slightly, Dr. Srigley strikes me as a very serious and respectable academic, whose attempts to provide an engaging course are being undermined by the laziness and apathy of many students. One can only hope that the inability of these people to live up to the most basic of expectations will not affect the opportunities of future students to benefit from the program, which is a real asset to our university.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com