Opinions

To walk the walk

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If you want a job, go to trade school. If you want an education, go to university.

For the 3,500 undergraduates graduating this spring, few probably knew or understood this idiom before they came to university and there are probably still a few who don't. How many of us can honestly say that we originally came to expand our minds, broaden our knowledge or become critical thinkers?

No, we came to university to get a job. For those who didn't drop out, education happened to be a useful by-product. It's an awful thing to say, but the reality is undeniable. The story goes like this:

Over the last few decades, higher education became critical to gainful employment in the Western workforce. If you ask your parents about their parents' schooling, you'll find higher education used to be a luxury. Only a small proportion of those individuals had the inclination, time or money to attend a university. They still landed good jobs with companies who may have employed them for an entire lifetime.

Nowadays, the picture is much different. A higher education, we've learned, would take you somewhere. It would increase your earning potential and get you a career. It would also increase the distance between yourself and the burger flippers whose high school education got them no more than a start in the fast food industry. It would land you that treasured job, or so we thought.

Somewhere along the way, the story took a wrong turn. Since when was a university about job training? The very premise of a university education relies on learning how we learn, a premise very different from that of a trade school. Here, you pursue personal knowledge--in the sense that you are to carve out your education from the landscape of knowledge a university offers. At a trade school one acquires skills instead of knowledge. This doesn't mean universities are useless in that we can't train people. Universities can and do prepare students for the job market, but the way in which they do so is fundamentally different.

Over the years, universities still got lumped in with skills training centres. If you ask a group of frosh why they decided to come to university, they'll reply that they want a good job when they're done. That's fine and dandy, but as they walk the convocation stage, they will hopefully have recognized there is something very different about university.

Nonetheless, universities now compete directly with places like DeVry, whose ability to grant bachelor degrees is, at the least, a very scary development for universities. Universities aren't meant to churn out graduates who can program entire computer networks but can't write coherent essays. Unfortunately, they are already going down that road with a helpful push from Alberta's Learning Ministry. The signs are unmistakable: The new government-funded Information Technology building is nearing completion; ground was recently broken on the new Calgary Centre for Innovative Technologies building. The Tory Government's priorities are obvious.

So, here is a question for the graduates convocating throughout this week: What did you come to university for? What are you leaving it with?

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