Pass, Fail

An in­side look at the re­tail scam known as the mod­ern uni­ver­sity

The Walrus - - FEATURES - By Ron Srigley il­lus­tra­tions by leif par­sons

For the past seven years, I’ve polled my stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land on two ques­tions. First: If you were told to­day that a uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion was no longer a re­quire­ment for high-qual­ity em­ploy­ment, would you quit? Se­cond: If you de­cided to stay, would you then switch pro­grams?

Pos­i­tive re­sponses to both ques­tions run con­sis­tently in the 50 per­cent range. That means at least half of my hu­man­i­ties stu­dents — or about 750 since 2009 — don’t want to be there.

Why not? A uni­ver­sity de­gree, af­ter all, is a cre­den­tial cru­cial for eco­nomic suc­cess. At least, that’s what we’re told. But as with all such cre­den­tials — those sought for the ends they prom­ise rather than the knowl­edge they rep­re­sent — the trick is to get them cheaply, quickly, and with as lit­tle ef­fort as pos­si­ble. My stu­dents’ dis­af­fec­tion is the real face of this am­bi­tion. I teach mostly bored youth who find them­selves do­ing some­thing they nei­ther value nor de­sire — and, in some cases, are sim­ply not equipped for — in or­der to achieve an out­come they are re­peat­edly warned is es­sen­tial to their sur­vival. What a dread­ful trap. Rather than learn­ing freely and ex­celling, they’ve be­come shrewd man­agers of their own ca­reers and are forced to com­pro­mise what is best in them­selves — their hon­esty or char­ac­ter — in or­der to “make it” in the world we’ve cre­ated for them.

The cre­den­tial­ing game can be played for only so long be­fore the mar­ket gets wise and val­ues be­gin to de­cline. I have been an ed­u­ca­tor in Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties for over four­teen years, hav­ing taught some eighty-five lib­eral arts cour­ses. Dur­ing that time, ev­i­dence has mounted show­ing that a bach­e­lor’s de­gree from a Cana­dian uni­ver­sity brings with it less and less eco­nomic earn­ing power. Last year, the Coun­cil of

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