WHY UNIVERSITY… AND WITHER SECOND LIFE

Greetings,

It’s been a crazy last couple of days. I’m largely functioning on coffee and naps at the moment.

WHY UNIVERSITY: My old colleagues at CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition had a piece on today about what’s gone wrong with universities in Canada. It dealt with the divide between the goals of universities and the actual outcomes of a university degree. Canada has a huge number of adults with undergraduate degrees (although we’re way behind the U.S. in the number of people with graduate degrees, but that’s for later), but why are so many people going into university when they really shouldn’t be there?

I know, this already has a tinge of elitism attached, but bear with me for a moment.

Consider this: why do people go to university? To be educated? Get a job? Both? This is a good point to start from, for it does illustrate a fundamental problem at the heart of universities in Canada: the reasons why universities exist at all is no longer clear. The effects of this dissonance between theory and reality are pernicious enough nowadays to warrant asking some hard questions about people’s motives in going to get largely dime-a-dozen undergraduate degrees. This really boils down to a difficult question: why are so many people who really shouldn’t be at university still going there?

First, let’s look at one very big reason for universities being adrift in purpose these days – the generation gap.

In the 1960s, finding good, stable employment for young people was a much less complicated affair; it was possible, upon graduation even from high school, to find a reasonably good job (if not an extremely well-paying one, but I digress). Universities, however, were completely different – they served a small minority of the population. There were four main purposes to going to university back then. One, you were going to earn a degree that would allow you, as it does now, to enter the professional class, whether it was as a lawyer, doctor, architect, whatever it may be. Second, you were there to earn a degree that would allow you instant access to lucrative jobs that didn’t require a graduate degree, i.e. engineering. Third, a B.A. in those days was valuable enough to garner a significant amount of attention on the job market as a whole, thus increasing your value as a prospective employee based on your knowledge base and critical thinking skills. Or, you were on the academic tenure track, which, while as challenging as it is today, had a lot more jobs available for teaching and research positions than in 2007.

The effect of this trend is two-fold, at least in Ontario. While no one could have foreseen how short-lived the explosive, double-digit economic growth really was for Ontario back then, successive provincial governments, awash in public money, started building more universities. A lot more universities. This was all predicated on an economic growth curve rooted in a time when globalization didn’t exist as a neo-liberal policy platform or outsourcing jobs offshore, so you can’t really blame those governments for not anticipating what was coming.

The second problem here was heightened expectations on part of Boomers; university obviously paid off for them, so why not for their children?

So here we are in 2007, a very unsettled time for universities in Canada and the U.S.

Enrollment in universities is sky-high now with a lot of people who have no business being there. The once-coveted Bachelor of Arts degree is now so commonplace it’s hardly even worthy of discussion for some jobs. I don’t care if this labels me a snob, but it’s true.

Want proof? A survey published in this month’s Adbusters demonstrates one immutable fact. In 1970, 79 per cent of university entrants said their goal in life was to develop “a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2005, 75 per cent defined their life’s objective as “being very well off financially.”

Those figures highlight one fundamental truth at the core of this debate. The purpose of people going to university, by and large, has shifted from educating individuals to working not only for one’s own ends in the guise of collective societal benefit towards pure individualist fulfillment. It’s not a good change.

Herein lies the rub. Baby Boomer parents, based on their own, mostly outdated ideas on university life, are pushing a lot of their kids into schools for unexplained reasons. Most kids going into school likely don’t even know why they’re there, unless they’re in a strictly professional track like engineering. They’ve just had it hammered into their heads for so long that university is the one-way ticket to prosperity that mom and dad earned. Going to get an arts degree but you’ve got no idea where to go afterwards? Well, there’s always law school or business school afterwards, but it will cost you a lot more than even the $10,000+ per year mom and dad are forking out for you to attend school when you probably wanted to go and work in a trade in the first place. Where’s the logic or sense in this situation?

I’ve known a lot of people who definitely should have gone to university – whether they had no idea what they wanted to do or simply fit into the academic environment, it made sense for them. But I’ve also met far too many people whom have had no good or compelling reason to be in university; they went only because it was a) expected of them because their parents went to university, b) it was assumed it would lead to good job prospects down the road, although that rarely happens now without family connections to good jobs or more post-graduate community college or high-cost graduate programs, which kind of defeats the purpose of going to get an undergraduate degree in the first place, or c) they were never there to really study in the first place and really just wanted to hang out with friends all the time (and their parents were wealthy enough to make that scenario happen).

Fact is, Ontario needs tradespeople more than university graduates right now. One wonders how much better off my generation – the most overeducated and underemployed generation in Canadian history – would have been if people were encouraged from the time entering high school to not focus on universities as the be all and end all of education and to show how great and useful it is to be a plumber or electrician, jobs that are in huge demand and serve intensely vital services in society.

I know this comes across as elitist and opposite to the romanticized notion of education working towards a better, more democratic society, but that’s not reality. A lot of people rarely consider those notions now when choosing a school. That’s unfortunate but true.

Alright, enough of that…

SECOND LIFE: The Star had a great article today on Second Life’s emerging problems. Like MySpace, Second Life’s getting overrun now by some offline-world issues, including the growing corporate presence in-world. One wonders where the avatar-based environment is headed considering competition for SL is coming.

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